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How to Use Breathing to Improve Performance

We’re always breathing, but have you ever wondered if you’re breathing properly? In this article we’ll look at some tips on how to breathe in a way that supports your sporting life and mental health by examining the anatomy and benefits of breathing well, as well as techniques that can improve the way you breathe.

The Basics of Breathing

Take a deep breath. We’re sure you can guess where that air is going, but what parts of anatomy are actually involved in breathing? Let’s take a look… the biggest component of the respiratory system is the lungs, which work like balloons to hold air. The lungs are surrounded by protective ribs and those ribs are held together with muscles; there is also a muscle underneath the lungs called the diaphragm.

Still with us? Good. When you breathe in, the rib muscles and diaphragm expand, creating negative pressure in the lungs and sucking in air. When we breathe out, the muscles squeeze, reversing the process. The inside surface of the lung is covered with alveoli which are tiny sacs with blood vessels that allow the oxygen to move from the air into your bloodstream. They also expel carbon dioxide into the lungs, ready for you to breathe it out. Your lungs are protected by your ribs and your throat is protected by the trachea, a shield of cartilage.

Not only is breathing vital for proper functioning of your body, but it also has psychological elements. Breathing is both unconscious, meaning sometimes you do it without thinking, and conscious, meaning sometimes you’re thinking about it; it’s one of the few unconscious things we do that we can also control, which may be why breathing can have meditational effects.

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Benefits of Proper Breathing During Exercise

It’s really important that you breathe properly during exercise; you don’t want to get dizzy or even black out, and breathing is fundamental to sporting performance because your oxygen intake feeds your muscles with the energy they need to do the heavy lifting. Also, breathing properly will reduce emotional stress and improve mental focus while helping to ease the physical burden exercise puts on your body.

Types of Breathing Techniques

Breathing techniques include diaphragmatic breathing, nasal and mouth breathing. There are different considerations with each and some can be combined, so let’s look at the differences.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique

You’ll be familiar with this if you’ve ever gone to singing lessons, but if not, you’ll need to learn how to pay conscious attention to your breathing. The diaphragm is a thin, flat muscle underneath the lungs and above the intestines, and it’s the most-effective way to breathe. It’s ideal to use the diaphragm during sports and exercise with the aim to breathe in about 50% more slowly than you breathe out.

Nasal Breathing Technique

Breathing through the nose offers an advantage because our noses help regulate air temperature, and humidify and filter the air that we breathe. This helps us avoid an asthma response, something that can trigger if the body feels it needs to stop cold air hitting the bronchi. However, nose breathing may not supply enough airflow. If nose breathing, you should press your tongue gently to the roof of your mouth while inhaling.

Mouth Breathing Technique

There’s no special technique to mouth breathing that you don’t already have practice in, but bear in mind that many choose to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth so it’s good to find a method that suits you. It’s also easier to lose moisture through the mouth, so make sure you stay hydrated.

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Breathing Techniques for Performance Improvement

Breathing is an important part of our life, so let’s look at some ways that breathing can improve your sports performance, mental focus and help soothe anxiety.

How Breathing Can Improve Physical Performance

Generally, you can expect correct breathing technique to make sure your cardio, nervous and respiratory systems are in great shape because these all rely on oxygen transport. Specifically, good breathing helps you avoid dizziness when working out and also improves your concentration if you keep your breathing to a regular rhythm. Also, with sufficient oxygen reaching your muscles, you’re in a position to give 100% rather than being hampered when your muscles run out of fuel.

Breathing Techniques for Mental Performance

Once you feel you’ve found an optimal breathing technique for athletic performance, such as nose breathing using the diaphragm, it’s important to add a few considerations for good mental performance also. As we said before, breathing can be either conscious or unconscious, so it’s a good idea to pay conscious attention to your breathing and bring a meditative quality to your exercise. Keep your breathing at a steady pace to aid in relaxation as tense breathing can lead to tense muscles and good performance relies on a relaxed physique.

Managing Stress and Anxiety with Breathing

Fast breathing is often associated with, and caused by, stress or anxiety. However, the good news is that this relationship goes both ways, and it’s possible to reduce anxiety with slow and consistent breathing. This is also another good time to remember the conscious and unconscious nature of breathing because if you find yourself unconsciously breathing quickly due to anxiety, consciously slowing your breathing can help soothe that feeling.

Mindfulness and Breathing

Mindfulness is the ability to achieve mental clarity and calm, and breathing is a useful meditation practice to achieve it. By focusing your mind on the flow and rhythm of your breathing, you can reach deep relaxation levels or encourage meditation. From a scientific point of view, this will help your parasympathetic nervous system reduce the heightened cortisol levels which cause stress.

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Common Breathing Mistakes to Avoid

There are some real advantages to paying conscious attention to your breathing, so let’s look at some breathing mistakes you can avoid to keep yourself on the right track.

Shallow Breathing

Breathing should be deep and leisurely, although if we’re feeling anxious or stressed it’s easy for our breathing to become quick, shallow or both. We can address this by practising breathing to the pace of a metronome. You can download a free metronome to your phone, select a leisurely pace and breathe slowly and fully.

Holding Breath

Holding your breath is another problem that results from stress, and can affect you either in your daily life or when doing things like resistance training. The best way to address this is through daily meditation, and by taking conscious control of your breath throughout the day and remembering to breathe. If you find yourself holding your breath while lifting weights, then try breathing between reps as part of your attention to form and preparation to lift.

Mouth Breathing During Intense Exercise

While you’ve got to find a breathing technique that suits you personally, many rely on nasal breathing for all the benefits we’ve discussed. If you find yourself mouth breathing during exercise and don’t want to, you could try to compromise by inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.

How Often Should I Practise Breathing Exercises?

There is no specific duration or number of times you should practise your breathing for best results, but the good news is there’s plenty of opportunity because you need no special equipment and can practise anywhere. You could practise immediately after you wake up, in bed before you sleep or even in the office while you work. The most important thing is to remain consistent, so if you choose to practise twice a day, make sure to follow through with your routine.

How to Incorporate Breathing into Daily Routines

A good way to start a routine is to have an exercise to focus on. One exercise for your breathing is called ‘box breathing’ and it’s designed to help you take conscious control. It’s a simple thing to try, and you practise it by breathing in, holding your breath, then breathing out and holding your breath again. You can do it regardless of where you are, and if you want to put this in a daily routine, you could get an alarm app and set it as a reminder to do box breathing twice a day.

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Breathing Exercises for Better Sleep

We’ve talked before about the importance of sleep in areas of your life including sports recovery and mental health so here are a few tips on breathing exercises you can do to improve your sleep.

Belly Breathing

Belly breathing uses your diaphragm to breathe and this technique probably gets its name as the movement of the diaphragm pushes the belly out as you inhale, rather than relying on movement in the ribs and shoulders. It’s a great way to get control of your breathing and avoid shallow breaths.

How to belly breathe:

1. Lie down and get comfortable
2. Put one hand on your chest and one on your belly
3. Breathe carefully to a slow rhythm while making sure you expand your belly rather than your chest. This may take some practice
4. By the time you’ve counted to twenty breaths, you should be more relaxed

4-7-8 Breathing

This is a relaxation technique inspired by yoga breath control techniques. It involves a pattern of breathing in, holding your breath, then breathing out to a rhythm.

How to 4-7-8 breathe:

1. Empty your lungs by exhaling through your mouth
2. Inhale gently through the nose and count silently to four as you do so
3. Hold your breath while counting to seven
4. Exhale gently through your mouth, counting to eight
5. Repeat the process for five cycles

 

So, we hope you’ve found it fruitful to look at the importance of breathing and go over some tips on proper breathing technique. All these ideas aim to get you to pay attention to something that’s often overlooked but definitely vital to our wellbeing; so, why not give these tips a try next time you workout, and maybe add them to your daily routine.

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