Introduction To Breath And Performance

There is a critical physical action that we don’t pay enough attention to in our coaching: breathing.

This article will take a brief look at what breathing is and why it’s important, and then we will look at a couple practices and techniques to improve your breathing before and during workouts & stressful events.

Proper Breathing is Significant

We are all aware that as we exert more and more effort, we increase demand for oxygen. Most people understand the way in which breath can affect your mood and/ or arousal levels. One thing to note is that the longer your body is deprived of oxygen, the more acidic your blood becomes, and performance will decline. Through proper preparation, persistent practice and use of various techniques we can get the body to perform at a higher level.

You read correctly: just by training your breath, you can improve physical and mental fitness.

Pre-game Preparation

In-event physical performance is important, but mental focus and alertness can play a major role in executing your game plan. To do that, the brain needs to have as much oxygen as possible. Focusing on breathing correctly rather than just a lot, i.e. quality vs quantity, will create better work output, more precise responses from our central nervous system and even quicker reflexes.

A technique I have found very useful before stressful situations taught by Commander Mark Divine of Unbeatable Mind. Divine is an ex-Navy SEAL and has taught this method to SEAL candidates, operators, competitors and business leaders. The breathing technique, called Box Breathing, involves three different parts of the breath.

Initially it starts with the belly breath and then moves to the diaphragm moving up and pulling the breath out to the lungs and finishing with a chest rise/expansion. The box breathing method involves a systematic approach to breathing by repeating this sequence of belly diaphragm, chest and then reversing this process on the exhale.

Box Breathing is used to not only calm the mind and flood the body with powerful oxygen but also prepare the body to perform at its highest level at any moment.

Here’s a link to the video that the Barbell Shrugged filmed that I found to be very useful in explaining and demonstrating the technique.

Valsalva Manoeuvre: Prepare properly for heavy loads and max efforts

There is a plethora of research available out there and different styles of breathing techniques. A common practice of athletes is associated with the concentric and eccentric phases of weighted movements. During the eccentric phase, or slightly before depending on the movement being performed, is when inhalation should take place as this gives the most capacity for oxygen to enter the lungs.

This phase is the part of the movement not requiring the most effort to perform, such as the initial downward movement of the squat or for the pull-up. During the concentric phase, the “working” part of the movement, exhaling should be performed such as when you are standing up from a squat for example. Taking a deep breath before performing a big, heavy lift can also help the athlete with bracing as it is a reminder to keep the midline tight and braced.

Check out this article on the Valsalva Manoeuvre for step by step directions on how to achieve this.

Rhythmic Breathing & Bracing: Sub-maximal loads and repeated efforts

Whilst the use of holding your breath and bracing your core musculature is great for heavy, short and/or explosive efforts – it is not optimal when doing repeated efforts like Wall Balls or Thrusters.

The first habit to break is holding your breath during a whole sets of work. People often learn how to brace and use Valsalva, but then they try to do ten Wall Balls unbroken without breathing and wonder why they are struggling after it. You need to get into the rhythm of cyclical rhythm every rep. For some exercises this is easy, as there is a logical place to breathe, but for others like a Burpee, athletes just don’t breathe as much as they could be during them.

To train rhythmic breathing, I suggest to start with rowing or running.

Get into the rhythm of taking a breath after every stroke or every few steps of your cadence. Then try with a Wall Ball, exhaling every time you drive out of the squat and throw the ball; and then inhale again on the way back down.

It can even be beneficial to try and breathe twice during a rep of an exercise that takes a bit more effort like Burpees. Try figuring out which works best for you.

Other Common & Beneficial Breathing Practices

These are but a few of many theories out there regarding breathing strategies and techniques. For instance, nose breathing is recommended because it increases the body’s absorption of oxygen and ultimately increases performance of the body during a workout. It can also help to decrease recovery time which means you’re on your way to the next lift or movement sooner.

I encourage you to do some research and find out what works best for you! Practice your breathing during the workouts, practice preparing your body before workouts, and maybe even throw in some breathing work after!

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