Improve Your Breathing, Improve Your Performance

Blinking, the beating of your heart, swallowing – these are all things we do countless times a day, often without even noticing. In fact, the average person breathes over 20,000 times in a single day.

Breathing in particular has been the focus of many forms of traditional medicine and exercise over the centuries: yoga, tai chi, pilates and others all place strong emphasis on proper breathing techniques. Some peoplefind the idea of “proper breathing technique” a bit ridiculous, considering how naturally it comes to us. However, emerging research suggests more and more strongly that these ancient practices may have been on to something. There are real benefits to relearning how to breathe.

The Mechanics of Breathing

Like every function of our bodies, particularly those we don’t directly supervise, the mechanics of breathing are surprisingly complex. During inhalation, the diaphragm in your lower abdomen and the external intercostals between your ribs all contract. The diaphragm descends, creating more room in the thoracic cavity while the intercostals lift the ribs up and out. All this new space creates a pocket of lower pressure in your lungs, and air from the atmosphere floods in to fill the void. To exhale, these muscles simply relax, allowing the pressure of the thoracic cavity to return to normal.

The problem is that, especially during exercise, people tend to place the emphasis on the intercostal muscles - or even recruit their shoulders in breathing - rather than allowing the diaphragm to do its job. This results in a less efficient breath, meaning that more work is done for less reward.

Benefits of a Good Breath

The idea that a slow, deep breath can be beneficial is definitely not new. At same point in their lives, most people have likely had to stop a take a deep breath just to calm down. The important part is that it works - but there’s also a large, ever-increasing body of science to support and explain the benefits of proper breathing.

Al Lee, co-author of Perfect Breathing, told the American Council on Exercise that “by using conscious breathing in all your pursuits, you will improve nearly every aspect of your life.” Just like any muscle, the diaphragm can be trained and strengthened to work more efficiently. This kind of training will increase your mental focus. It will also increase the amount of oxygen that reaches your muscles and, as a result, improve their overall performance.

One study that provides powerful evidence for the efficacy of training your diaphragm showed that athletes who followed the program were able to perform at the same level while consuming 10 percent less oxygen. The athletes also experienced an overall performance improvement of between five and eight percent, cutting three to five minutes off of a 60-minute running race.

The psychologically calming effects of deep breaths also shouldn’t be ignored. Being mentally focused yet relaxed will help you to both enjoy your workouts more, and perform better during them.

How to Breathe Properly

While breathing itself comes very naturally to us, it may take some practice before you can comfortably incorporate proper breathing techniques into your workout. To practice, start in a quiet, comfortable environment and make sure that your nostrils are clear so that you can easily breathe. It’s important to always breathe through your nose at a regular, natural rhythm when practicing.

Traditional fitness wisdom, and especially yoga, encourages an “in through the nose, out through the mouth” breathing style. Conflicting information regarding this method circulates in the fitness community, though clearly it has its place during exercise. Everyone has probably experienced the urge, at the end of an intense workout, to gulp in air through the mouth — but while this will provide you with more oxygen, the air will be drier, unfiltered and cooler than if you were to inhale through your nose. People with respiratory issues, such as asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, will especially benefit from the warm, moist, clean air that comes in through the nose.

When you’re first working on this technique, you should inhale for two counts, hold the breath for two counts and exhale for four counts. As you become more and more comfortable with this slow, measured breathing, try using it during a workout. If you’re walking, use your steps as counts. Cyclists can use pedal strokes.

Eventually you should be able to start increasing your counts while keeping the same ratio. Your exhalation should always be the sum of your inhalation and hold. Learning to control your breath will help you to strengthen the muscles involved, and even improve your overall performance.

Have you used this kind of respiratory training? If you have any tips or suggestions, please share them in the comments!