Improving Exercise Performance: Breathwork is the Technique That Will Elevate Your Workout Routine
If you’re in the gym, it’s probably because you want to improve exercise performance.
That means something different to everyone, but it doesn’t matter if you want to prep for a competition, improve exercise performance, lose weight, or simply make sure you’re crushing each workout better than the last: you know you need a well-balanced program that includes cardio, strength, stretching, and rest, not to mention proper nutrition.
Check, check, check, and check. So that’s it, right? If you’re nailing all that, what else can you do?
There is one more important and often overlooked element that could take your athletic performance to the next level, and we don’t mean supplements or three-a-day workouts.
We’re talking about breathwork.
What Is Breathwork?
If you’re breathing all day (and we sure hope you are), aren’t you already doing breathwork?
Breathwork brings attention to your breath with the purpose of reaping some pretty incredible benefits that go beyond, you know, staying alive:
- Relax: Deep breathing is one simple way to reduce stress and relax, which you can use before your next big athletic competition or your next big business presentation or your next big doctor’s appointment, whichever comes first. And last. And everything in between. Deep breathing is a skill that will serve you in all aspects of your life.
- Build Muscle: True strength isn’t all in the quads and biceps. Breathwork trains your diaphragm, the largest muscle involved in the breathing process. With a buff diaphragm, you improve your respiratory system’s ability to supply oxygen to working muscles and remove waste. Not only that, a strong diaphragm also strengthens your entire core from the top down by working with the internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, pelvic floor, and transverse abdominis.
- Improve Your Lung Capacity: As you train your lungs to hold more air, you create a more efficient system. If you belt out your favorite tunes in the shower, you might already be working on this: singing is one way to learn breath control and improve lung capacity. A study showed that boys and girls who sing have a 24 percent greater lung capacity than those who don’t. What is singing but one melodious breathing exercise? And you thought it was just about sounding like a rock star.
- Improve Exercise Performance: This is what it’s all working up to: greater lung capacity, stronger muscles, and an ability to calm your nerves all improve athletic performance. Furthermore, focusing on your breath keeps you tuned in to your body. Instead of allowing your mind to wander (what’s for dinner, anyway?), you stay in touch with your muscles and how you feel. That awareness can help you move more efficiently (which, as a super-bonus, may help prevent injury), identify when you truly need to rest, and keep you focused on the task at hand.
- Help With Asthma: The European Respiratory Journal reports that breathing exercises can be included in an asthma management program to help improve patient outcomes and psychological state and reduce anxiety. A study from Southern Methodist University in Dallas showed that breath training can help asthma patients reduce dependency on medications and improvement in symptoms
Who Benefits From Breathwork?
Okay, let’s elaborate. By now, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that improving the performance of your respiratory system can also help you achieve better exercise performance. These are just a few of the athletes in various athletic endeavors who credit breathwork to their success.
This ESPN article highlights Olympic gold medal winner Jamie Anderson, who mentions breathing exercises as a part of her training program. In fact, such focus on breath and mental strength were part of what helped her put down a winning run in snowboarding conditions that were less than perfect. She adapted to the situation and focused on what she could control: her own performance.
You may be thinking, “Hm, if breathwork is good enough for an Olympic champion, it might just be good enough for me.”
And you would be right.
Surfers regularly practice breathwork for some practical reasons:
- They have to be able to stay underwater for a long time. Sometimes longer than expected.
- They have to be able to stay relaxed and focused in stressful and occasionally life-threatening situations.
Check out this video of Laird Hamilton, one of the most famous big-wave surfers in the world; he talks about why control of our breath is important in sports and in life.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is an elite self-defense and combat martial art. The Gracie family are the originators of the modern practice of BJJ.
They are, essentially, BJJ royalty.
In this video, Kron Gracie talks about using breath work to improve performance and focus during BJJ training and combat.
“When you control your breath, you can actually control yourself mentally and physically. You can really understand your fears and your emotional stress.”
In this article, you can learn more about his breath training techniques.
Runner’s World has reported several times on the benefits of breathwork for runners and how it can improve exercise performance, including in this article where coach Mindy Solkin is quoted:
“A strong respiratory system can improve your running. It’s a simple equation: Better breathing equals more oxygen for your muscles, and that equals more endurance.”
Pulmonologist and runner Everett Murphy, M.D., was also quoted:
“When you take a breath, 80 percent of the work is done by the diaphragm. If you strengthen your diaphragm, you may improve your endurance and be less likely to become fatigued.”
Obviously, that has implications for any sport that requires endurance, like cycling, rowing, and chasing your children (or your dog) around the yard.
When you think about breath work, you might think of yoga first.
And no wonder.
Breathing is an integral part of the practice, and yoga practitioners talk about how focusing on the breath helps improve all parts of the yoga practice, including range of motion and overall flexibility and mobility. This Yoga Journal article talks more about the science of breathing and why yoga without the attention on breathing isn’t really yoga at all.
How to Incorporate Breathwork Into Your Training
Here’s some good news: breath training doesn’t take long and doesn’t require any special equipment. To practice at home, you may follow these tips to set up your own personal breathwork gym:
- Sit on a mat or cushion, folded blankets, or a comfortable chair. You want to make sure you can sit up tall, as if you’re in third grade and your parents are marking your height on the wall. (When you slouch, your lungs don’t have as much room to expand.)
- Eliminate distractions. Make sure your family knows not to interrupt you and that they’ll have to make their own snacks for the next few minutes.
- Use a watch or phone to keep time, but put it in airplane mode so your practice doesn’t get interrupted by a social media notification. (Your co-worker had a turkey sandwich for lunch, and the photo is magazine-worthy, for sure. Catch it later.)
Do what you do in the gym: start slowly and work your way up. You’ll improve with practice.
Turns out, that’s true for everything.
There are many breathing exercises. Try these:
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Use the thumb and ring finger of your right hand. Take a deep breath in and out through both nostrils. At the end of the exhale, close your right nostril with your thumb and inhale quietly through the left. Close the left with your ring finger and exhale right. Then inhale right, close the right nostril, and exhale left. That is one complete round. Do this several times. As you get better, you can focus on lengthening your inhales and exhales to a count of five, seven, 10, or as high as you’re able to go. Finish the exercise by exhaling through the left nostril, then removing your hand and breathing deeply and quietly through both nostrils.
The ujjayi, or ocean-sounding breath, is used regularly in yoga. It’s a great technique for learning to control your breathing. Yoga Journal explains it like this:
“…place one hand a few inches from your mouth. Breathe in through the nose and then breathe out through the mouth as if you were fogging a mirror or a pane of glass. Repeat this three times. Now drop the hand and create the same experience in your breathing but with the mouth closed…. Inhale for six counts and pause at the top of the breath, then exhale for six counts and pause. Repeat and keep breathing this way, in and out of the nose with sound on both the inhale and on the exhale for 5-10 minutes.”
If you’re still wondering if you really need to take your breath training as seriously as you take your strength, cardio, and flexibility training, consider this: The American Council on Exercise published this article, quoting author Al Lee:
“By learning to control your breathing, by understanding how the respiratory system is integrated with your body, by using conscious breathing in all your pursuits, you will improve nearly every aspect of your life. Whether you’re a casual gym-goer, a mall walker, a mountain biker, an actor, singer or dancer, putting your breath at the core of your discipline will help you achieve far more than you ever thought.”
You’re in the gym because you have goals. If there were a secret sauce that could help you achieve those goals, you’d want it, wouldn’t you?
Of course. And you already have it.
Your breath is that sauce.
Wherever you want to be by next month or next year, mastering your breath will help you get there. Use breathwork to your advantage to improve exercise performance and become the best athlete you can be.
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