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One Small Change

Performance Breathing: Does it Work?

Foto43 / flickr

So you think you’re in pretty good shape? Your arms are hard, your endurance is good, and your abs are coming in (at least when viewed from a 75-degree angle in bright morning light). But what have you done for your diaphragm or intercostal muscles lately? What’s that? You didn’t know your diaphragm was a muscle (it’s actually one of the body’s largest), and you never heard of the intercostals (they attach to the rib cage)? If you’re not regularly working these, then you’re not totally fit. In fact, you’re sacrificing health and performance.

“If you don’t exercise these muscles, they atrophy, just like any other muscle in the body,” explains Al Lee, a breath expert and the architect of PerfectBreathing.com. “For most adults, their breathing has slowly moved higher and higher into their chest over the years, so they’re taking little sips of air into the tops of their lungs and are barely using the diaphragm. In fact, if you’re not actively exercising it, the older you get, the more difficult it is to get it unstuck.”

In our single-minded pursuit of fitness, it seems we’ve forgotten that muscles need oxygen to perform optimally, and we get that nourishment through breath. Because he suffered with asthma, marathon great Alberto Salazar had to be particularly conscious of his respiration. He learned that by breathing more efficiently, he could “grow” his cardiovascular system so it could process and utilize more oxygen.

“What you’re doing is creating a capillary-blood network to service the muscles so that whatever amount of air that you can get in, you can keep as much of that oxygen as possible,” Salazar explains. “The less oxygen you have for whatever reason, the more you have to rely on stored blood sugars, and eventually you run out of that. The better you breathe, the more oxygen you can get in, the less you have to use your glycogen stores. When you get to that point, you are able to go a little faster and a little harder.”

Based on research and discussions with athletes like Salazar, Lee and his partner, Don Campbell, devised a drill called Performance Breathing. It’s best for any endurance sport that involves a repetitive motion (running, cycling, swimming…). It’s designed to help you find that sweet spot where the energy coming in balances the energy being expended, and you feel that tireless high so many athletes strive for. Here’s how to do it:

  • Inhale through the nose for 2 seconds
  • Hold for 2 seconds
  • Exhale through the nose for 4 seconds

The important part is to synchronize this breath with your activity. For instance, if you’re walking or running, inhale for 2 steps, hold for 2 steps, then exhale for 4 steps. Similarly, if you’re cycling, inhale for 2 pedal strokes, hold for 2 pedal strokes, then exhale for 4 pedal strokes.

The hold phase is particularly important because that’s when your capillaries are madly grabbing oxygen molecules (not unlike housewives at a Filene’s Basement sale). So does it work?

I tried Performance Breathing during a 20-mile bike ride over rolling terrain, and it was challenging to maintain. In cycling, your cadence changes so frequently that it’s difficult to find a consistent breathing pattern that doesn’t eventually leave you gasping. But I’m confident that with practice it will come, because I’ve had a similar experience in ashtanga yoga, where the breath must be controlled through a series of flowing poses. Although it seemed impossible at first, I can do it easily now.

Performance Breathing is more instantly adaptable to walking, backpacking and running. It’s kind of like the military Hut! Hut! Hut! in that it helps put you into an almost hypnotic rhythm.

“The whole approach is counter-intuitive,” adds Lee. “When we demand more of our bodies, we instinctively start breathing faster to get more oxygen. But the opposite is actually true. If we slow down our breathing, studies show that runners, cyclists and rowers all become more efficient. The trick is finding that sweet spot where you’re breathing slowly but not so slowly that you’re out of breath.” I plan to keep working on that.

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Cycling, Running, Swimming, Abs, Outdoor Recreation