FIT for LIFE Knowledge Base

Breathing technique to improve performance?

Many endurance athletes today logically try to achieve more effective and economical breathing and an increase in the maximum respiratory minute volume (the amount of air exhaled and inhaled in one minute) by improving their breathing technique.

The respiratory vital capacity (“used” volume of air that is exhaled after a breath), which is always emphasized in connection with endurance sports, is not a scientifically recognized, performance-determining factor, but nevertheless plays a central role in the efficiency of your breathing. By the way, athletes can have up to 7 liters of vital capacity – untrained people only 3 to 4 liters.

Over the last 50 years, there have been countless more or less serious attempts to improve athletic performance with the help of breathing. In some cases, tips and tricks for breathing have been developed. Most of these tips did not last a long time in training doctrines.

For example, when running, “exhale in rhythm with the stride frequency,” or when cycling, preferential breathing into the chest – because in this way the lungs supposedly fill more quickly in a bent-forward position. Not to mention holding one’s breath in peak physical exertion during weight training or in peak performance or hyperventilating before a dive. Ultimately, the following breathing recommendations have endured in training doctrines to this day:

  • Breathing through the nose: Breathing through the nose is recommended because the nose filters and pre-tempers the air. But nasal breathing should only be implemented for aerobic training loads. As soon as the body demands more oxygen during anaerobic exercise, this demand can only be met through the nose in very rare cases. Rather, the rule of thumb is to breathe through the nose as long as it works without a drop in performance; however, as exertion increases, breathing through the mouth can be used without any problems.
  • In cold weather only via nose: In very cold temperatures, breathing during training should be done exclusively via the nose, if possible, to prevent colds and bronchial diseases. If you are also in the anaerobic zone in cold weather and have to breathe through your mouth, the following trick will help in severe cold: form your lips into an “O” and place the tip of your tongue against the upper palate. The tongue, which is well supplied with blood, warms the incoming air. Do not breathe intermittently: In all forms of nasal breathing – even in regeneration phases – do not breathe in or out intermittently. Observe the walls of your nose in front of a mirror when you inhale forcefully through your nose: these walls fold inwards and thus reduce the oxygen intake capacity.
  • Breathing into the abdominal region: Sure, it looks cooler when a trained chest expands even more while running or cycling. For the respiratory system, however, this chest or high breathing entails little efficiency. This is because the natural way of breathing, and therefore the one that can best be developed and trained, is via the abdomen. Because there the diaphragm – the largest muscle in the breathing process – supports the breathing in a natural way. However, the abdomen should not inflate outward when breathing in or be pulled back with muscular effort when breathing out. Rather, even during exertion, abdominal breathing that is as relaxed as possible is physiologically correct because it leaves maximum room for efficient oxygen extraction.
  • Complete breathing: If the body is accustomed to abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing in the various phases of exertion, “complete” breathing is usually easy. For this purpose (usually only in aerobic load), starting from the abdomen, the inhalation is directed up to the chest. Exhalation then begins in the higher chest area and ends with a gentle collapse of the abdomen.
  • No frequency guidelines: Forget training tips that prescribe breathing frequencies. Your body determines what it needs in terms of oxygen in the respective situation and daily form. Important: Breathing rates are always individual and personal and should never be dictated by others during endurance sports.
  • Uniform breathing rhythm: However, endurance athletes should get into the habit of intervening in their breathing rhythm. Put the emphasis on a long exhalation! Try to inhale and exhale in a ratio of 2:4, better 2:6 or 3:9. This controlled exhalation has been shown to put less stress on the body and significantly calms the breathing rhythm. Which in turn will sustainably increase oxygen uptake. By the way, this also works when breathing through the mouth: form your lips into an “O” when exhaling – this way, the drawn-out exhalation works much better than with a wide-open mouth.

Bridge between body and mind

In recent decades, modern science has also increasingly studied the neurological and psychological effects of the breath on the interaction between body and mind.

After many, mostly spiritually inspired people had already explored the phenomenon of breathing and the mind over thousands of years. They applied their knowledge and experience, for example, in meditation, and now various neurological research studies have also proven such connections and effects. Some acclaimed “discoveries” are nothing more than a confirmation of traditional practices.

The essence of these findings is probably best described by the metaphor “the breath is the bridge between body and mind”. What is also comprehensible for more analytically thinking people: The breath is on the one hand unconsciously controlled by the vegetative nervous system, but can also be consciously controlled. Consequently, conscious breathing can influence the autonomic nervous system, which in turn is responsible for stress perception, but also stress reduction and relaxation. In addition, it has now been proven worldwide in renowned institutes and research facilities that conscious breathing is a pathway to the emotional centers of our brain.

Athletes can try this out for themselves “on a small scale”. During a casual, aerobic run in the woods, begin to breathe in and out through your mouth frantically, quickly, and in bursts, exactly the opposite of the suggestions described above. You will quickly notice that your mood changes drastically. Or agree with the popular saying. If you are in a stressful situation, the saying ” take a deep breath first” is quite justified and has a positive effect on your mood. In general, when you ” hold your breath”, stressful moments are usually not far away.

This also applies to difficult competition situations: In order to overcome the dreaded stressful situation of the “marathon wall” as quickly as possible, many trainers recommend concentrating on breathing as calmly as possible.

This allows the thoughts to focus again on the goal and/or the arrival at the finish line. The will to continue is then consistently strengthened via the breathing and the previously created stress is effectively “fought”.

Tricking the mind

But how do you create calm breathing? The answer to this is obvious, especially for athletes: through training and practice! Decisive for the alternation between tension and relaxation in the body are the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems – two essential components of the autonomic nervous system in the human body. Since we can influence the autonomic nervous system by controlling the rhythm of breathing, we also get the opportunity to pretend something to this system.

So, for example, if we consciously breathe in and out in a calming manner over a certain period of time when we are in an excited mood, we simulate a kind of relaxation or even a short sleep to the autonomic nervous system. The body then reacts promptly because it has been accustomed to this for a long time: The vagus nerve, as part of the parasympathetic nervous system, is stimulated and begins its work as the master of relaxation. The muscles relax and the breathing rate calms down, the blood pressure drops. The result is usually a pleasant, calm feeling in the body, a more serene, thoughtful way of thinking and a faster regeneration of the previously stressed body.

Using the memory effect

A training effect can occur. The more often the autonomic nervous system is confronted with conscious breathing (and sometimes even with “deceptive breathing”), the more promptly it can react to it. It’s like training: If you train your body purposefully, you can call up endurance and strength when needed – for example in a competition.

Moreover, those who are mindful of their breath develop a deep relationship with it over time and discover many signals and sensations. For example, fatigue can be partially detected with conscious and deep breathing – because you can mentally work your way through the body in this particular way.

However, these now accepted findings are in principle nothing new. In ancient traditions such as yoga, the power of breath has been an essential part of an entire philosophy for thousands of years. Yogis, for example, have always seen breathing as the carrier of an all-encompassing energy that can be enriched in the body and directed by the human mind through the body in a healing and relaxing way. Those who breathe consciously and in a controlled manner as practitioners calm their minds and have a good chance of a long life. This was claimed by the yogis in early writings, not least because they were convinced that one must die not after a certain number of days and years, but after a predetermined number of breaths. And depending on how fast you breathe….

Practice the worst case scenario

And what do athletes get out of such findings? Should they now sit down with their legs crossed in front of the aforementioned “marathon wall” and practice deep breathing while the others run past them to the finish line?

In principle, it’s all about proper preparation. Just as physical training lays the foundation for success in competition, conscious breathing as an exercise during periods of rest can train the mind and, in this case, the autonomic functions so that you automatically react correctly in extreme situations. Not to mention the positive effects that breathing controlled at least to some extent can have on the human physique.

Two exercises for abdominal and alternate breathing

How to internalize conscious breathing
For athletes of all kinds, it is advisable to practice conscious breathing. Even though inhaling and exhaling are taken for granted in our lives, we have by no means exhausted all the capacities and potential of this biological miracle system. Conscious breathing not only promotes body awareness, but also concentration. Therefore, take some time every now and then to consciously perceive the breathing process without mentally digressing. All it takes is a bit of leisure and time. In addition, a comfortable seat with a straight back and crossed legs, either on a chair or on a cushion on the floor. The following applies to both exercises listed:

  • Take at least ten to fifteen minutes.
  • Basically inhale AND exhale through the nose.
  • Practice in a quiet environment – closed eyes for concentration are an advantage.

1: Abdominal breathing with emphasis on exhalation

  • Inhale into the abdominal region (diaphragm moves down towards the abdomen).
  • Inhalation over a period of 4 counts.
  • Exhalation out of the abdominal region (diaphragm lifts) over a period of 8 counts. Exhalation can be increased to 12 counts. Ideal ratio 1:2, later 1:3.
  • Do not control breath, but observe it.
  • “Decelerated breathing” means a reduction (halving) of breaths per minute. Try it with 4 seconds of inhaling and 6 seconds of exhaling.

2: Alternate breathing with emphasis on exhalation

  • Close right nostril with right thumb by gently pressing on right nasal wall.
  • Inhale.
  • Close left nasal opening with ring finger of right hand, open right.
  • Exhale.
  • Inhale right, close right, exhale left = 1 round.
  • Put emphasis on exhalation. The ideal ratio of inhalation and exhalation is 1:3

Text from FITforLIFE– This blog post was provided to us by the Swiss magazine FIT for LIFE. If you want to read regularly informative knowledge articles in the field of running and endurance sports, click here.