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Master Your Breathing to Perform Better

Overview

Breathing is a key ingredient to human function and performance. It’s a human reflex we’re born with, and it’s attached to our nervous system, which has an input and an output. If you have poor breathing patterns (input), you’ll have poor motor output, which can result in muscle compensations and even possible overuse injuries. Breathing plays a role in optimal nervous system function, proper motor function, relaxation, focus, and efficiency. 

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The Correct Way to Breath

There are typically two types of breathers:

  1. Diaphragmatic breathers – This is the most reflexive and natural way. We want to be good diaphragmatic breathers. In general, the rib cage should expand in a 3-D pattern, top to bottom, back to front, and to the sides.
  2. Apical breathers – Apical breathing, or upper chest breathing, can be caused by a variety of issues, including smoking, stress, poor posture, or asthma.

Mouth Versus Nose Breathing

Dr. Roy Sugarman, director of applied neuroscience for EXOS, says nose breathing has a range of performance benefits. “Breathing through your nasal passage can increase CO2 saturation in the blood and slow down your breathing — both of which create a calming effect,” he says. “It also helps warm air before it hits your lungs during cold weather workouts.”

Dr. Sugarman says that mouth breathing is associated with a host of health problems and should be avoided as best as possible. His advice is to keep the nose and sinuses healthy and the septum straight — not so easy for athletes in sports where a sudden, sideways nose-shift is common. This helps overall performance and, more importantly, helps speed up the recovery process.

Breathing Tips for Sports

Running

There isn’t one best breathing pattern for running. For many it’s a 2:2 ratio (two steps breathe in, two steps breathe out). For others it’s 3:1. Aim for a rhythmic pattern to help your body relax and improve your body’s efficiency. Sporadic breathing makes it more difficult.

Cycling

Cyclists tend to be good belly breathers because their posture on the bike limits their ability to use their chest. Similar to running, relaxed and rhythmic breathing is the goal during peddling. For instance, inhale for two pedal strokes, hold for two pedal strokes, then exhale for four pedal strokes.

High-Impact Sports

For high-impact sports, like tennis, inhale while preparing for a shot or intense action and exhale through execution to maximize stiffness and power.

High-Contact Sports

During high-contact sports, hold your breath if you know you’re going to take a hit. If you’re delivering the blow, exhale through contact.

Swimming

Al Lee and Don Campbell, co-authors of "Perfect Breathing," devised a drill called performance breathing for endurance sports like swimming that involves a repetitive motion. It’s designed to help you find that sweet spot where the energy coming in balances the energy 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, and exhale through the nose for 4 seconds.

Yoga

In yoga, there are many different types of breathing patterns — not just one yoga belly breath. These breathing patterns are called pranyama, an ancient Indian practice that basically means “regulation of breath.” Like meditation, breathing helps relax your tissues and calm the nervous system. Often people will hold their breath because a pose is too painful. If you’re holding your breath, you’re being too aggressive. You want an equal in and out style of breathing. For more on improving your performance through breathing, read "Performance Breathing: Does it work?"

Breathing Under Pressure

Whenever we’re threatened, the body’s fight-or-flight response kicks in. This mechanism instinctively prepares us to either run or rumble. Heart rate quickens in order to pump blood where it’s needed most, at the same time that blood is drawn away from extremities as a protection against injury. It's simultaneously invigorating and debilitating. Rational thought is replaced by caveman impulse.

“Research shows that there are two pathways to the brain,” explains Lee. “One is for rational or attentional thought, while the other is for emotions. The two pathways are inversely related. So when your emotions start heating up, your ability to think rationally diminishes. That’s why you have crimes of passion or road rage.”

The key to retaining control in these situations is, as Lee explains, “to focus on an attentional task that brings down the emotional side and lets you be more objective.” And researchers have found that breathing does this best.

Here’s how to perform what Lee calls pressure breathing:

  • Exhale
  • Inhale through your nose for 3 seconds.
  • Purse your lips and exhale, while letting your cheeks inflate. Draw the exhalation out to a count of 10 or however long you can. Try to get every last bit of air out of your lungs.
  • Repeat until you’ve settled down.

What that long exhalation forces you to do is breathe. You have no choice. The inhalation becomes an automatic, life-preserving response. This corrects the tendency to take very short, shallow breaths when we’re scared or having a panic attack. The pursed-lips trick, according to Lee, puts pressure on the vagus nerve at the back of the throat, which triggers many anxious symptoms. For more tips to stay calm under pressure, read “Breathing Bootcamp.”

Breathe Yourself to Sleep

Having trouble falling asleep? It’s actually possible to breathe yourself to sleep — in just 5 minutes or less. Although breathing may seem like an unconscious mechanism, it’s entirely controllable and, once tamed, can influence heart rate, blood pressure, circulation, hormone production, stress levels, and many other bodily functions.

“The breath is the common denominator in everything we do,” says Lee. “It touches every dimension of life. It directly and dramatically affects your health, your ability to heal, your emotions, your physical performance, your creativity, and it’s used by every spiritual tradition to help achieve deeper states of prayer, meditation and contemplation.”

And it can settle you enough to put you to sleep. Try this exercise next time you find it difficult to drift away:

  • Inhale through the nose for a count of 6.
  • Hold for a count of 3.
  • Exhale through the nose for a count of 6.
  • Hold for a count of 3.
  • Repeat this series four more times.
  • Next, inhale through the nose for a count of 6.
  • Exhale through the nose for a count of 6.
  • Repeat this series four more times.

Or you can follow Lee’s advice and simply become more mindful of your breath as you lie in bed. Instead of trying to alter your breathing, just become conscious of it, he says. Doing so pulls your monkey mind out of its jungle and focuses it on one thing (your breathing), which is often enough to put it to rest.

“It brings you back to the present moment,” explains Don Campbell, the other half of the "Perfect Breathing" team. “There’s no way you can think about yesterday or tomorrow when you’re concentrating on your next breath. Doing so immediately starts ramping down your entire metabolism.”

Originally published June 8, 2013. Updated August 17, 2015.


Tags: Rest, Sleep, Relaxation, Energy, Health

References

  1. Proper Breathing Techniques for Exercise, Huffington Post
  2. Darcy Norman, Performance Innovation team, EXOS
  3. Anna Hartman, director of performance physical therapy, EXOS
  4. Dr. Roy Sugarman, director of applied neuroscience, EXOS

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