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Breathe Like An Athlete

Can perfecting the way you breathe improve performance? Our experts say yes.

Breathing. We usually don’t think much about it; our bodies simply make it happen autonomously like it does digestion and circulation. But then you sprint to catch the bus, carry your toddler up two flights of stairs or kill it in your WOD. Suddenly you’re gasping for air, desperately sucking O2 like a beached cod. At these times breathing becomes a voluntary activity, and the way you inhale and exhale could actually affect athletic performance.

“Proper breathing is one of the most overlooked resources in sports and fitness,” says Laurenn Cutshaw, a former collegiate gymnast and vice president of marketing and branding for Yoga Six. “The movement of air in and out of our lungs facilitates an exchange of oxygen that every cell in the body needs to survive and perform.”

Improper breathing can hinder performance since CO2 is not properly cleared, thereby causing a buildup of waste and altering the pH of the body. “And if you reduce oxygen to muscles, there is also less O2 available for ATP production to assist with lactic-acid buffering,” says Ben Greenfield, NSCA trainer of the year and owner of Greenfield Fitness Systems in Spokane, Wash.

Check out these activities and their expert-recommended breathing techniques. Try them out for yourself and see if you can breathe a little easier.

Aerobic Activity / Moderate Intensity

Aerobic literally means “with oxygen,” and cardiovascular activities that involve long durations of time and distance require efficient breathing techniques and greater diaphragmatic integrity. Enter rhythmic nasal breathing.

“During endurance activities you’re trying to inhale more than you exhale,” Greenfield explains. “When running, for example, take one deep breath through your nose for three foot strikes and exhale through your nose for the next two foot strikes. As you increase the intensity, change the pattern to a 2:1 ratio of breath to foot strike.”

Nasal breathing can also be used to control your pace and help keep you cool under pressure. “During endurance activities such as running, biking and swimming, an even, rhythmic breath cadence helps maintain heart rate and has a very calming effect on the body,” says Cutshaw.

Anaerobic Activity / High Intensity

Anaerobic activities are done in the absence of oxygen, and in an event of short distance, breathing is something of a moot point. “A 100-meter dash involves very little breathing; usually you’ll see sprinters inhale at the command of ‘set’ and then take off,” states Jacques DeVore, CSCS, cycling coach for USA Cycling and owner of Sirens and Titans Fitness in Los Angeles.

Once you start lengthening the sprint distance, however, breathing becomes more of a factor. “Your body becomes exhausted of creatine and you need to get oxygen on board to burn glucose and power the activity,” says Greenfield. In that kind of situation, breathing through your mouth becomes the most efficient way to deliver oxygen to needy tissues.

There is a downside, however: “Breathing through your nose may lead to tightening of the facial muscles,” explains Jonathan Mike, Ph.D., CSCS, assistant professor of exercise science at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. “When sprinting, your entire body — including your facial muscles — should remain in a relaxed state, with your mouth open slightly, to deliver the most oxygen.”

Strength Training / Powerlifting

Controlling your breath is vitally important for heavy strength training. “Here you’re basing your breathing around the Valsalva maneuver, a technique in which you increase intra-abdominal pressure by holding your breath during heavy loading and exhaling when you complete the rep,” notes Mike. This braces the diaphragm, increases spinal stability, connects the upper- and lower-body kinetic chains and enables maximal effort during lifting.

In between sets, recovery breathing is crucial. “Heavy weightlifting is an anaerobic exercise with little need for oxygen during sets,” says DeVore. “But in between, creatine replacement can take several minutes when lifting really heavy, so breathe deeply to help facilitate that process.”

Meditation / Low Intensity

Even when you’re not exercising, practicing conscious breathing can be healing for both body and mind. “Under stress, the tendency is to take short, shallow breaths,” says Cutshaw. This raises blood pressure, and perpetuates the stress response and the release of harmful agents like cortisol. “Long, deep breaths initiate a relaxation response that effectively slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure and releases tension throughout the body,” she adds.

To practice, inhale for four seconds and hold for two seconds, then exhale slowly for six seconds. This type of “pranayama” breathing is also useful for meditation. “The main objective is to shift the autonomic nervous system away from its sympathetic (excitatory) dominance, thus enhancing the parasympathetic system and relaxing the body and mind,” Mike explains. “This also increases the nitric oxide in your blood, causing vasodilation, enhancing blood flow and helping to lower the blood pressure.”