Improve your performance by improving your breathing
Time for a riddle: What’s something we do every single day, yet we rarely think about?
We should spend more time thinking about our breathing, as how we breathe matters. It matters for day-to-day life, even reducing stress and anxiety, it matters when you’re lifting heavy weights, and it most definitely matters when you’re struggling through a metabolic conditioning or cardiovascular workout.
Yet how often do you focus on your breathing when you’re oxygen-deprived and fighting to get enough air during a 10-minute workout of burpees and wall balls?
Learning how to become a more effective breather is one of the most useful things you can do to make conditioning workouts feel easier, and ultimately improve your overall fitness and performance. It’s kind of the same concept as becoming more efficient at your movements in the gym.
Your body needs oxygen to get to your muscles, and the more efficiently you can deliver oxygen to your muscles and tissues, the better your performance will be, as you’ll be able to maintain a higher level of intensity as you’re working out.
Many times ineffective breathing comes down to one major problem:
People breathe more than they need to!
It sounds counterintuitive, as you’d think that when you’re working out it’s always better to breathe more, but the reality is sometimes you actually breathe too much and get rid of too much CO2.
Here’s the thing: Your blood is almost always fully oxygenated, and you actually NEED CO2 in order to get O2 to your tissues. But even though your blood might be fully oxygenated, if you’re burning off too much CO2 by breathing too much, the O2 doesn’t always go where it needs to go—to the muscles and tissues.
Think about the concept of hyperventilating. When you hyperventilate, you’re breathing A LOT, and when you do, not enough O2 gets to your tissues or to your brain. Keep hyperventilating long enough and you’ll pass out due to a lack of oxygen.
When you’re exercising, sometimes it becomes a mental thing: You start freaking out because you don’t feel like you have enough O2, so you breathe more, and often you breathe more and more incorrectly by taking shorter, shallower breaths and you end up doing more damage than good.
3 Ways to become a better breather include:
1. Become more efficient at belly breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing).
2. Become a more effective nasal breather (not relying entirely on mouth breathing)
3. Become a more consistent breather
Let’s take a look at all three and some ways to improve these skills:
1. Become a better 'belly breather'
Getting better at belly breathing is useful as it allows you to slow down your breathing, catch your breath, and use less energy doing so.
23 hours of the day, belly breathing (diaphragmatic breathing) should be your default way to breathe. When you’re training hard, you should also rely on your diaphragm to breathe, although because you’re exerting yourself you’ll also have other respiratory muscles that will kick in that let you use your upper chest, too.
Many people, however—both when resting and especially when working out—use entirely their upper chest to breathe. Sometimes they think they’re belly breathing, but all they’re really doing is using their abdominal muscles to bush their belly in and out, as opposed to actually using their diaphragm to fill the belly.
One good drill to get you actually belly breathing is BAND BREATHING:
Check out this video and detailed explanation. Basically all you do is wrap a band around your body under your rib cage. The band will give you the sensory output you need.
Then, instead of just pushing your belly out, focus on a 360 degree expansion of your entire torso (all around your rib cage) as you breathe, as opposed to just using your abdomen to trick yourself into thinking you’re breathing with your diaphragm. Spend five minutes band breathing three days a week and see if it becomes more natural for you.
2. Become a better nasal breather
If you have ever tried keeping your mouth closed and breathing only through your nose when you’re working you, you probably notice pretty quick how difficult it is. Heck, it’s even hard to do when you’re resting. But the better you get at it, the more efficient of a breather you will become.
Believe it or not, the best nasal breathers can actually workout at 80 percent of their capacity by only nasal breathing!
We’re not necessarily looking to get you to that level, but if you get better at nasal breathing, you’ll be able to maintain a higher output longer.
There’s also evidence that becoming a better nasal breather has some other good benefits, including increased CO2 saturation in the blood, which creates a calming effect. It also helps warm up the air entering the lungs, so if you’re working out in the cold, it can be super useful.
Here’s an easy exercise you can to do get you to focus on your nasal breathing:
Walk, cycle, skip, row (something at a super low intensity where you can keep moving consistently for 10 minutes) and nasal breathe ONLY. This means your mouth will remain closed. Work at an intensity level that allows you to breathe through your nose only. Something you can do in your daily warm-ups at the gym.
Then: Every minute on the minute (or every 90 seconds if you’re finding it too challenging), take a deep breath in and out through your nose and build up medium-strong air hunger after the exhale. Then return to normal nasal breathing.
You’ll be surprised how challenging this is, but the more you train it the easier it will become and the more you’ll build a new tool.
3. Become a more consistent breather
Similar to holding a consistent pace on each round of a five round workout, when you’re conditioning, you want your breathing to be consistent, too.
The more consistent your breathing is, the more nitric oxide will get into your body to help dilate blood vessels and increase oxygenated blood flow to your heart. It also ensured your muscles get a consistent amount of oxygen.
Consistent doesn’t necessarily mean slow, especially when working out. It just means your rate of breathing is consistent from one breathe to the next, as opposed to shallow short breaths for a few breaths followed by a longer deep breath to try to recover.
3-5 minutes of skipping, biking, rowing or running, where your heart rate is up at about two times your resting heart rate. So if your resting heartbeat is normally a 60 bpm, then try to row, run, bike or skip at a heart rate of 120 bpm (maybe 60-70% effort).
Focus on inhaling for two to three seconds and exhaling for two to three seconds for 3-5 minutes. Keep your breaths as consistent as possible. Rest for 3 minutes and repeat.
Though breathing isn’t as sexy as learning a muscle-up or snatch, the benefits from learning how to breathe properly—by getting better at belly breathing, nasal breathing, and becoming a more consistent breather—will translate into so many of the workouts you do. Before you know it, you’ll find lungs you didn’t know you had. So next time when I'm giving advice for your workouts and I say, "Use the box jumps to catch your breath." you know what I mean - control your breathing, in through the nose, consistent rhythm and be in control.