How breathing better will enhance your performance

Breathing Feature image

While the best supplements on the market can give you a competitive edge during training or racing, have you ever considered that something as simple as your breathing can also boost performance?

Breathing is something we do every fews seconds to sustain life, yet for something so important many of us have no idea how to breathe properly, especially during exercise. Poor breathing techniques will rob you of energy and has a negative effect on mental alertness and overall performance.

Lifestyle factors

Poor breathing stems from a number of factors, including poor posture, restrictive clothing, bad habits like smoking, poor diets that lead to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, a fast paced and stressful life, and pollution and poor air quality.

These factors, combined with our more sedentary lifestyle, means that the average person generally only uses about a third of their natural lung capacity, while drawing about 15 shallow breaths a minute without properly activating the main breathing muscle, the diaphragm. Most people rely only on their weaker intercostal muscles found between the ribs to perform the act of breathing – even active people. This is generally called chest breathing.

Do it the right way

Diaphragmatic (aka abdominal or stomach) breathing causes the abdomen to expand rather than the chest. It’s characterised by slower, deeper intakes of air. This allows the lungs and more of the sacs (called alveoli), which are responsible for getting oxygen into our circulatory system, to fill with air. This delivers more oxygen to red blood cells, which the body then uses for various metabolic processes, including energy production. As such, proper breathing is a technique that needs to be re-learnt and practiced, just like any sporting code.

Importantly for active individuals, breathing impacts your workout efficiency and how you feel during exercise. Poor breathing techniques will therefore increase your perceived exertion levels, making exercises seem more difficult than they really are. As such, proper breathing while you work out not only increases your comfort level, but also improves endurance.

Improve your performance by improving your breathing.

Breathing at rest
To fully oxygenate the muscles and clear the body of carbon dioxide you should breathe deeply and expel air forcefully using the diaphragm, which can only be done with the proper breathing technique.

Research has shown that taking 10 or fewer deeper and slower breaths per minute while at rest is best for overall health, as slower breathing offers the physiological benefit of increased oxygen saturation in cells. Taking fewer than 10 breaths per minute also engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a more relaxed state and aids recuperation.

It is also during rest when you can perfect diaphragmatic breathing. It is very difficult to master this technique while you are exercising, so aim to work on this deeper, slower way of breathing while you sit in traffic or at work, or while you are lying in bed at night.

Breathing during exercise

Slower breathing helps to increase heart-rate variability – a measurement of the fluctuation in your heart beat during activity. High heart rate variability is healthy as it means your cardiovascular system is flexible. You should therefore take slow, strong, deep breaths during exercise, especially during endurance activities. This breathing should follow a pattern and tempo that is suited to the type and level of activity you are doing.

Conversely, it’s important to avoid rapid, shallow breathing. A number of endurance athletes fall into the trap of breathing with each step or pedal stroke. This is an old-school technique used to maintain tempo and rhythm. The problem with this is that, as your pace increases or you reach the upper limits of your aerobic threshold, this can actually decrease performance as your breathing becomes more rapid and shallower. This can result in hyperventilation and a lack of proper oxygen intake, delivery and absorption, which limits performance.

And never hold your breath, especially when doing strength or resistance training such as weight lifting or Pilates. Holding your breath during heavy exertion can increase your blood and intra-ocular pressure, reduce blood flow to your brain, tissue and organs and increases the pressure in your chest. This can cause serious damage to the blood vessels in there areas of the body. It is important to exhale on the exertion phase and inhale during the recovery phase.