Want to improve your performance? Get in tune with your breath.
Breathing. That vital automatic, continuous, involuntary action that each of us is doing all of the time. Most of the time though, we barely give our breath a second thought. However, tuning in to your breath, and training it to be stronger and more efficient can positively impact many areas of your life, including your sports performance.
Studies have shown that a strong and more efficient breath can lead to significant improvements in athletic performance. In one study, by Dr Mitch Lomax and the Department of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth, runners who performed inspiratory (inhalation) muscle warm-ups just before running, combined with training for their inspiratory muscles, improved their performance times by 15 percent over six weeks.
If this sounds like good news to you, then the even better news is that improving your breathing is simple, and can be very low tech – even ‘no tech’. It’s just a matter of learning how, and practising.
The basic theory behind efficient breathing is fairly straightforward. Training your respiratory muscles to become stronger, and using more of your lungs’ capacity helps deliver more oxygen to your tissues while using less energy. Conversely, weak or shallow breathing can promote early fatigue in athletes, and can impact your power output, efficiency of movement and other factors.
Given the body of knowledge about breath efficiency, and the potential to realise measurable improvements in performance, remaining oblivious to how you work with your breath is a missed opportunity. In my experience working with athletes I have come across a range of levels of breath awareness and efficiency. At the top end, elite track sprint cyclists report that they know exactly when they take a breath in as they prepare to race, how deeply they breathe, when they breathe out, and how they coordinate their breath with their pedal strokes to achieve maximum power. On the other hand, one young dedicated swimmer admitted she wasn’t at all aware of how she exhaled as she swam, or how her breath coordinated with her effort and power through the strokes.
How about you? Whereabouts along such a continuum would you be? Is there room for you to improve and reap the benefits?
‘Smart breathing’ for performance is not exclusive to the realm of elite athletes. Anyone can do it. Developing your breathing skills can be pretty straightforward. Looking online can uncover many very useful and sports-specific training resources for improving your breath efficiency.
Or, you could try yoga as well. Yoga is an ideal place to cultivate your breath, as it is one of the few physical disciplines that really places utmost priority on breath awareness and control. In fact, at its core, yoga can actually be considered a breathing exercise.
Yoga and breathing for athletes
There are two general ways that working with the breath in yoga can help athletes.
Firstly, on the physical level, yoga encourages you to breathe more efficiently, using the whole of your lungs.
Yoga poses that stretching and opening the chest area will help too. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing is becoming a lost skill these days, and yoga brings us back to it. By consciously deepening your breath, directing and controlling it, you can strengthen your respiratory muscles and lung capacity. This will help improve the oxygen delivery throughout your body when its demands increase during exercise. Deep breathing also has positive impacts on the nervous system, encouraging relaxation, and improved function and regulation of many of the body’s vital systems.
The other important benefits of yoga breathing exercises for athletes relate to awareness, control and focus.
Yoga practice requires a constant awareness of your breath. An ‘advanced’ yoga practice, in my terms at least, does not involve bending your body into contortionist poses. Rather, it is when the practitioner can move through a practice with complete awareness of each breath in and each breath out, and of the connection between the breath, the mind and each pose and transition. By keeping your focus trained on each and every breath, you are learning to ‘be’ in the present moment, developing your mind-body awareness and a sense of equanimity that you can maintain under pressure.
Yoga breathing becomes an exercise in focus, control, concentration and efficiency. These are all important skills that help ‘good’ athletes develop into ‘great’ ones.