Breathe optimally and improve your performance
Breath is everything that’s why it's called ‘prana’ in Sanskrit, the very life! In today’s time and age, breathing has again taken center stage within high-performance sports.
In this article, Mr. Bharat Sachdeva, an alumnus of the 3rd edition of the High Performance Leadership Program, talks about the importance of breath control in sports and how athletes can use a variety of different breathing exercises to improve their performance on the field.
We work out to improve your cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength & endurance, and flexibility. We train our kids and students for the same reasons. But have we forgotten to breathe?
“By learning to control your breathing, by understanding how the respiratory system is integrated with your body, and by using conscious breathing in all your pursuits, you will improve nearly every aspect of your life,” explains Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
Whether you’re a casual gym-goer, a mall walker, a mountain biker, an actor, a singer, or a dancer, putting your breath at the core of your discipline will help you achieve far more than you ever thought.
“When we exercise, our body’s demand for oxygen increases, and our breathing volume or ventilation must also rise,” explain Matthew Pine and Mark Watsford, from the human performance laboratory at the University of Technology, Sydney. “This requires numerous muscles surrounding the lungs to contract in a highly coordinated manner. As the intensity of exercise increases, these respiratory muscles must contract more forcefully and more rapidly to keep pace with the body’s substantial increase in metabolism, ” they added.
However, in the same way, that a stronger heart can push out more blood with each pump and as a result doesn’t have to beat as often, a stronger diaphragm and intercostals mean you can slow your breathing rate down and even get more oxygen to your muscles.
By increasing the strength and stamina of your respiratory system, your breathing becomes more efficient, requiring less energy—which leaves more energy for the motor muscles and whatever task or activity you’re involved in, Therefore, you can take slower, deeper breaths, getting more oxygen out of each breath; you don’t have to work as hard to get it, because you don’t have to breathe as many times to get the same amount of oxygen.
The performance improvement may also be due in part to improved focus. “When you are focused on your breath, you become intimately in touch with your mind, body, and emotions and very much at the moment, which improves performance. Athletes in most sports could improve their performance by undergoing respiratory muscle training. It is also clear that the greater the stress on the respiratory system, the larger the improvement in performance.
During high-intensity exercise, when the respiratory muscles become fatigued, the body switches to survival mode and “steals” blood flow and oxygen away from locomotor muscles. As a result, these locomotor muscles become fatigued and performance can suffer significantly. Increasing the strength of the muscles involved with breathing, say the study authors, through breathing-resistance exercise, can prevent this fatigue during sustained exercise situations, resulting in better performance.
The study goes on to say that if the diaphragm and intercostals aren’t exercised, they atrophy—just like any other muscle in the body. For most adults, their breathing has slowly moved higher into their chests over the years, so they’re taking little sips of air into the tops of their lungs and are barely using the diaphragm. In fact, if you’re not actively exercising it, the older you get, the more difficult it is to get it unstuck.
Incorporating breathing methods into workouts is really nothing new. Yogis have been doing it for centuries, Pilates instructors for decades, and who hasn’t used breathing to aid in moving heavy weight—inhaling in the eccentric phase and exhaling in the concentric phase? Like yoga, though, the point of performance breathing is to help you center and focus, as much as it is to strengthen the respiratory muscles.
“Being in a relaxed state is important to achieving optimal performance in any endeavor, not just sports,” says Karlene Sugarman, author of Winning the Mental Way. “It’s a vital stepping stone to peak performance [whether you’re working out, giving a presentation, or dealing with your children]. The [individual] that is mentally and physically relaxed and has ‘quiet intensity is the one that is going to come out on top,” she adds.
One way to achieve this quiet intensity is through breath control.
Try performance breathing during your next workout,” says the author. “This simple technique can immediately improve your athletic performance and is especially well-suited to repetitive-motion activities, such as running, cycling, swimming, etc. Sugarman explains that focused breathing helps to maximize your energy intake while keeping the mind “in the body” and clear of distracting self-limiting thoughts.
Before beginning, make sure you’ve followed the “Preparing to Practice” guidelines (see sidebar). Sugarman also stresses the importance of being able to comfortably complete deep, full breaths. When first beginning this method, it will probably feel uncomfortable and unnatural. That’s why practice is important.
The breathing cycle for this exercise is divided into three parts, each part getting a set number of counts:
Inhale (2 counts)
Hold the breath (2 counts)
Exhale (4 counts)
Once you’re comfortable with this method, Sugarman then suggests applying it to your activity. As an example, for walking:
Inhale for 2 steps
Hold for 2 steps
Exhale for 4 steps
If you’re a cyclist, replace steps with pedal strokes, swimming strokes for swimming, and so on, depending on your activity.
Ultimately, you want to find a pace and count that you can maintain and feels natural. As you become more adept with this technique, try and increase your counts while keeping the same ratio. For example, inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and exhale for 8 (or 6, 6, and 12). Experiment and find a combination that works well for you.
Not a breathing convert? At the very least, says Sugarman, simply become more conscious of your breath. A great way to practice breath consciousness—or your breathing cycles—is in bed. A fringe benefit: It’ll probably quickly send you off to dreamland.
“[Focusing on your breathing] brings you back to the present moment,” explains Campbell. “There’s no way you can think about yesterday or tomorrow when you’re concentrating on your next breath.”