How to Use Your Breath to Boost Your Fitness

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by Kaetlin Zink

This may sound like a bizarre question, but have you ever stopped to think about when you were going to take your next breath in the midst of a challenging exercise or intense sport? Having grown up a dancer, I surprisingly encountered this problem pretty frequently.

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Time after time, I would find myself so focused on the sounds of the music to cue my next move that I would hold my breath without realizing it. This would leave me exhausted, light-headed, and gasping for breath after only a few minutes of dancing until I finally started to consciously find time to breathe when transitioning from one move to another.

Turns out, this breathing trouble is a very real problem called dysfunctional breathing. Dysfunctional breathing is characterized as rapid, shallow breathing that reduces the amount of oxygen sent to working muscles. This reduction in oxygen limits the amount of nutrients available for working muscles to function properly, and also limits the amount of toxins moving out and away from muscle tissue. As a result, exercisers begin to lose energy and tolerance due to an increase in fatigue, dizziness, and cramping.

 

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Do any of these symptoms sound familiar?

Signs of Dysfunctional Breathing*:

  • Holding breath in while concentrating or performing a tough exercise
  • Fast, shallow breathing versus slow, deep breathing (chest breathing versus abdominal breathing)
  • Frequent cramping in muscles during activities
  • Hyperventilation during exercise (lightheadedness, dizziness)
  • Quick fatigue during a strenuous activity
  • Anxiousness or irritability
  • Blurred vision
  • Unfocused thinking or obsessive thoughts
  • Gastric disturbances
  • Yawning
  • Muscle spasms

*if any of these symptoms should persist outside of exercise, be sure to talk to your doctor to rule out other causes.

Believe it or not, proper breathing technique significantly helps optimize one’s performance when exercising. When a sufficient amount of oxygen flows throughout the body, people can work out without having to exert as much effort, meaning exercisers can workout for longer durations. Below are some breathing strategies to aid in boosting performance during common exercise activities.

Running

Poor breathing technique while running can have a huge impact on speed and performance. While there is no way to know for certain the most effective strategy, breathing expert Alison McConnell suggests inhaling when taking two steps (one right and one left), and exhaling when taking another two steps (left and right). This is also referred to as the 2:2 rhythm.

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But how does it work? Since the diaphragm and nearby organs are affected by the forces of gravity, matching your breathing rhythm to your running tempo will actually prevent the organs from putting excess pressure on the diaphragm. This excess pressure is what then causes impairments in performance.

Mouth vs. Nose breathing:

According to experts, both have different benefits and downfalls: Mouth breathing is more effortless during exercise, whereas nose breathing is much more strenuous. At the same time, Dr. Roy Sugarman (Director of Applied Neuroscience for Athletes’ Performance and the U.S. National Men’s Soccer Team) says that breathing in through your nose increases CO2 absorption in the blood, which creates a soothing effect. It can also lower allergen exposure and help warm the air entering your lungs- great for exercising in cold temperatures.

Strength Training

For regular weight lifters, common advice is to exhale during the part of the routine that requires the most muscular effort. But why does it work? Contracting the muscles during the exertion stage will help prepare the body for heavier weights. It will also help maintain lower back stability.

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Remember: don’t forget to breathe consistently, in and out. While holding your breath in is good for stability, it will cause pressure to gradually build up in your chest. When the breath is held for too long, it can slow the return of blood to the heart, thereby raising blood pressure- the opposite of what we want to happen.

Yoga

There are two main breathing methods for yoga lovers. The first is called the “equal breathing” technique, which entails matching an equal inhale with an equal exhale. According to yoga instructor and breathing expert, Rebecca Pacheco, following this style of breath has the power to diminish stress, lower blood pressure, and relax the nervous system.

The second breathing method, ujjayi breathing, is recommended for physically demanding yoga practices, like Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga, which build core strength and tone the body. For these styles, experts say it’s best to implement the ujjayi breath, also known as the victorious breath. Ujjayi is an ancient breathing technique that harmonizes yoga movements/poses with breathing to optimize relaxation for both the body AND mind. Ujjayi breathing is a common practice that is not only beneficial for exercise, but also for relieving agitation, stress, and apprehension.

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But how do you do it? To complete one full ujjayi breath, start by sealing your lips and taking in a deeper breath than usual via the nose. Then release the breath slowly (again through the nose) while constricting the muscles in the back of the throat. One way to tell if it’s done correctly is if you sound like Darth Vader. If this sound is difficult to create, try making the sound “HAAAAH” while breathing out, as if you were trying to fog up a mirror. Once this practice becomes comfortable, try making a similar sound with your mouth closed and feeling the air flow out of your nasal passages.

Once you have mastered this sound during the exhale, attempt the same sound for the inhale breath, once again constricting the back throat region. The proper sound during the inhale can best be compared to waves forming in the ocean, while the exhale can best be compared to waves crashing on shore.

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If catching your breath during exercise remains a problem even after trying out these tips, alternative factors may be contributing to the breathing impediment. If you are subject to allergies or have asthma, make sure those are kept under control. Correcting poor posture and giving up smoking can also help significantly.

If you’re someone who commonly overlooked the benefits of deep, consistent breathing during exercise, now is the time to start thinking about it! Not only will you find improvements in performance, but you’ll also find improvements in overall energy level and mindset.


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