When we start exercising on a regular basis, we may face some difficulties such as fatigue, muscle pain, breathlessness, or even injury. These obstacles disrupt our training sessions and make them less pleasurable. Therefore, in order to exercise more efficiently, for a longer time, and see results quicker, we must focus on improving athletic performance
When it comes to improving physical endurance, there are many options available, including strength training, endurance exercises, and proper nutrition. However, one of the most crucial factors that can have a significant impact on physical performance and endurance is breathing. The way you breathe literally defines how well and long you are able to endure any exercise.
The beneficial effect of proper breathing on your physical performance
Dr. John Douillard conducted studies on an exercise technique that uses ancient Vedic concepts to integrate the mind, body, and environment to achieve a state of flow. The technique involves deep nasal breathing called ujjayi, similar to the breathing used in yoga. The study found that this technique can reduce feelings of exertion and increase comfort during high-intensity training compared to normal aerobic exercise.
The breathing practice can promote a sense of calm during exercise and improve respiratory sinus arrhythmia, leading to better fitness, endurance, strength, and mind-body coordination with less effort, strain, and fatigue.
Seven ways to improve your physical performance via breathing
Breathing exercises offer a variety of benefits for sports. These benefits range from improving your everyday breathing patterns and functional breathing to simulating altitude training.
When you improve your everyday breathing patterns, your breathing is going to be lighter during physical exercise and you won’t get puffed out so quickly. This means you’re less likely to have muscle fatigue and more likely to stay aerobic. You will also breathe more optimally, economically and efficiently.
Thus, successful physical performance goes hand in hand with breathing. Your breathing patterns are definitely worth improving, so here are seven ways to do so.
1Improve your performance with better CO₂ tolerance
CO₂ tolerance is indicated by how much carbon dioxide you can handle before feeling the need to breathe. A high CO₂ tolerance is utmostly beneficial for athletic performance.
Improving your CO₂ tolerance can enhance oxygen delivery to the muscles, reduce breathlessness, and result in easier breathing during rest and physical activity. This can decrease the likelihood of inflammation, tissue damage, and injury by producing fewer free radicals. Proper breathing is crucial to maximise aerobic metabolism and enhance athletic performance.
Athletes with a higher level of CO₂ tolerance were found to experience 50 to 60% less breathlessness during exercise.
There are different breathing exercises to train your CO₂ tolerance. One of the best ones is practising diaphragmatic breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing exercise
Diaphragmatic breathing exercise involves taking deep breaths by expanding the stomach while inhaling and exhaling through the nose. While practising this exercise you have to breathe lightly, slowly and almost not hear how you breathe.
1. Stand up and put both hands on the sides of your lower ribs.
2. Start breathing: when breathing in feel your hands move out, when exhaling feel your hands move in.
3. Make sure you are inhaling and exhaling only through the nose.
4. Repeat this cycle as many times as you feel comfortable. At first, it might look easier than it is, but practice shows that it I not a piece of cake.
2Boost your VO₂ max with high-altitude breathing training
VO₂ max is the maximum volume of oxygen your body can absorb during exercise. VO₂ max determines your capacity to sustain physical exercise and is thought to be the best indicator of cardiorespiratory endurance and aerobic fitness. You can increase your VO₂ max levels by improving the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.
One of the factors that influence VO₂ max levels is the altitude you live in. The truth is simple – the higher the altitude, the better the VO₂ max. The traditional altitude training method involves living and training at high altitudes, which forces the body to adapt to exercise with less oxygen and thus increase the level of oxygen in the blood. This technique is still used by athletes today, especially Kenyan and Ethiopian runners.
The ‘live high and train low’ model was developed by Dr. Benjamin Levine and Dr. James Stray-Gundersen to maintain the benefits of high altitude while limiting detraining effects. Athletes live at a moderate altitude of 2,500 meters but train at a lower altitude. A study conducted on distance runners showed a 9% improvement in red blood cell volume and a 5% improvement in maximal oxygen uptake for those who lived high and trained low, resulting in a 13.4-second performance improvement in a 5,000-meter run.
But, for ordinary people, living in the mountains in order to perform better in a gym is a bit too far-fetched. Luckily, we can imitate the conditions in high-altitude areas with the help of breathing exercises.
Note from Healthypedia
Practise this exercise at least 2 hours after having a meal as it involves walking.
1. Walk for a minute at a normal for your pace. After the first minute of walking, exhale and pinch your nose in order to hold your breath.
2. Keep on walking and holding your breath till you start feeling a medium or strong air hunger.
3. Stop pinching the nose, inhale through it and start taking very short breaths for about 15 seconds. After this allow your breathing to return to normal.
4. Keep walking for 30 seconds and repeat.
5. During your walk, repeat 8 to 10 breath holds.
This exercise takes approximately 12 minutes and is extremely effective at making your body able to do more physical activity with less effort.
3Improve your respiratory muscle strength with breath holding
You can improve your physical performance by strengthening your respiratory muscles. In spite of the fact that a number of products are available that promote respiratory muscle strength, breath-holding may be the most natural and easiest way to do so.
The diaphragm is the main respiratory muscle that moves downward during inhalation and back during exhalation. When you hold your breath, carbon dioxide builds up in your bloodstream and you need to breathe again. This causes the diaphragm to contract and spasm, which strengthens it over time. Strengthening respiratory muscles, like the diaphragm, can improve exercise tolerance and endurance.
4Reduce lactic acid via breath holding
When you exercise muscle and blood cells emit lactic acid. A small amount of this is beneficial and serves as a temporary source of energy. But when this acid starts accumulating in your body, it leads to a burning or cramping feeling in the muscles. These sensations can slow down the pace of exercising or even halt it.
The slower the buildup of lactic acid, the longer you can sustain intense exercise. You can reduce the emission of lactic acid with the help of breath-holding exercises. Research has shown that holding a breath after an exhalation increases acidity levels in the body, improving tolerance and delaying fatigue onset.
Breath-holding exercise when jogging or running
1. After 10-15 minutes of running, when your body is warm and sweating, breathe out lightly and hold your breath till you feel medium or strong air hunger.
2. After taking a breath hold, continue running or jogging while breathing through your nose for about 1 minute.
3. Breathe holds should be repeated 8 to 10 times, followed by a minute of nasal breathing between each hold.
This breath-holding exercise is beneficial for both improving lactate threshold and respiratory muscle strength.
Note from Healthypedia
Do not perform strong breath-holding exercises if you are suffering from chronic conditions such as high blood pressure epilepsy, diabetes, heart problems, anaemia, cancer, kidney disease, panic disorder, anxiety, sleep apnoea and cardiovascular issues. Consult your doctor first.
5Enhance your core stability with proper breathing
Research by physiotherapist Josephine Key suggested that breathing plays a major role in maintaining core control and postural stability.
The core connects your upper and lower body and supports their movement. It is the centre of all motion, whether you are kicking a ball, rowing, cycling, or vacuuming the floor. Poor balance and stability are caused by weak or unstable core muscles. As a result, people are more likely to fall, incur injuries in sports, or experience ongoing discomfort and pain.
Breathing and posture sustain each other. That is why disordered breathing may lead to poor muscle function which negatively affects physical performance.
Here is a breathing exercise that will help to improve your core stability for better physical performance.
90/90 breathing exercise
To perform this exercise, lie on your back with your feet on a wall so that your knees and hips are bent to 90 degrees. Ensure your neck and spine are in a comfortable and neutral position. Place one hand on the upper chest and one on the lower abdomen. Inhale and exhale through your nose.
1. Take a low, slow inhale for 3 seconds followed by a brief pause.
2. Exhale slowly and fully for 4-6 seconds, followed by a longer pause of 2-3 seconds before starting the next breath cycle.
3. Then do the next few cycles.
4. Your hands should be pushed out as the air expands the sides of your stomach.
6Increase balance with diaphragmatic breathing
By improving the balance and coordination of your muscles, you will improve your body’s ability to handle challenging tasks. In terms of athletic performance, this means improved agility, faster reaction times, and better overall performance.
In a small study conducted in 2017, researchers investigated the relationship between diaphragm breathing training and static and dynamic balance. Over eight weeks, 13 participants practised breathing exercises and their balance and breathing were assessed each week. The results showed that as the participants’ breathing scores improved, they made fewer errors in single-leg balancing. This suggests that diaphragm breathing may help improve balance.
To practise your diaphragmatic breathing you may use the exercise above or try one of the exercises from our article:
7Control blood pressure and heart rate with light, nasal breathing
When you exercise your blood pressure might become elevated and your heart beats faster. High blood pressure and frequent heart rate during exercise could lead to fatigue and decreased performance.
Breathing exercises are an absolutely perfect way to control these two health indicators. In one study, participants practised slow breathing twice a day for eight weeks. As a result of breath work, their diastolic pressure dropped by 7 mmHg and systolic by 13.5 mmHg and their heart rate dropped by 8 beats per minute.
Light breathing exercise
1. Count to six while breathing in
2. Exhale to the same count from one to six
3. Keep breathing in and out lightly and slowly while counting.
Practise for up two minutes (mind your comfort, if you feel that it is too hard for you to continue for two minutes reduce the time).
Improving our athletic performance can be a challenging task, especially when we face obstacles such as fatigue, breathlessness, or even injuries. However, there are many ways to enhance our physical endurance, including strength training, endurance exercises, and proper nutrition.
Despite having many options, the way we breathe is the most crucial factor that can significantly impact our physical performance and endurance. By improving your breathing patterns with the breathing exercises discussed in this article, you will be able to take your physical performance to the next level.
So, let’s start breathing correctly and unleash our full athletic potential!
Not enough? Here is more
We highly recommend the book ‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art’ by James Nestor for anyone interested in the fascinating science of breathing and its impact on our health, fitness, and overall well-being. Through personal anecdotes, historical research, and cutting-edge science, Nestor takes readers on a journey of discovery about the power of breathing and how we can optimise our breath to live healthier and happier lives. This book is a must-read for anyone seeking to better understand the importance of proper breathing techniques and the many benefits they offer.
In this video, James Nestor explains how proper breathing can impact athletic output. James Nestor is an award-winning science journalist, who is traveling the world to find out what went wrong in our evolution of breathing and how to fix it. He is the author of the book ‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art’ which has become an international bestseller.
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