When it comes to athletic performance, we're all looking for something to give us an edge. So, what if I told you there’s a powerful tool to improve your performance that you probably haven’t considered? It costs nothing, it’s accessible to everyone, and you happen to be doing it right now...
The power of breathing
Yogis and martial artists have known this for centuries. They understand how the practice of consciously changing the flow of breathing – a practice called breathwork – can impact your body and mind. And with mindfulness now a familiar term in the West, there will doubtless be meditators who have experienced some of the benefits of breathing, from reducing stress to facilitating rest, relaxation and recovery.
But something talked about far less is how breathing can improve your athletic performance. And don’t just take it from me. 'Breathwork is an untapped avenue in sport and life,' says Joby Clayton, Anthony Joshua’s coach. 'It affects the energy of the mind.'
But breathwork isn’t just a nice-to-have. It may in fact be the single best performance enhancement out there. Now think for a second. What stops you from going that extra round or mile? Well, what happens usually is:
You ‘gas out.’ A strong feeling of breathlessness forces you to stop.
Your muscles fatigue due to the build-up of lactic acid.
Both of the above.
To understand why and how your breathing plays such a big role in fitness, let’s explore what’s happening in the body when you breathe.
Breathing: The science
When you breathe, you take in oxygen from the air around you. This is transported to your cells. Here, it combines with glucose to create an energy source, ATP, which allows your cells to function. This also produces carbon dioxide, which is then expelled from your body. It’s a process called aerobic respiration.
When you exercise, your muscles use oxygen in the air to work. Getting oxygen into your bloodstream is simple: you take a breath. But getting oxygen from the bloodstream into your muscle cells is a more complex task as you need to have the right balance of carbon dioxide.
If carbon dioxide levels are too low, oxygen will not be delivered to the cell. So balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide is very important. Think of it this way: having travelled from the air to the lungs, oxygen will jump on the hemoglobin bus to its desired cell destination. Now the hemoglobin bus will pass right by the bus stop unless CO2 is waiting at it. But if CO2 is there it can hop on, swap seats with O2, and ride the bus to the lungs. This is the Bohr effect.
So, although carbon dioxide is often dismissed as a 'waste product', it's a vital part of respiration. It's the CO2 in the bloodstream that tells your brain when to breathe. Therefore, when levels of CO2 increase, we feel the need to take a breath or breathlessness.
Naturally, when you exercise, your muscles need more energy. They therefore create more CO2. To meet the demand for energy, your brain makes you breathe more rapidly. Those with a low tolerance of CO2 will likely experience a feeling of breathlessness during exercise due to the increase in CO2, but if you can increase your tolerance of CO2, you can delay the onset of breathlessness – and go that extra round.
There is another piece to the puzzle. If, by breathing, you cannot meet the energy demand required for the activity, a new process starts. This is anaerobic respiration, whereby the body creates ATP through an internal fermentation process called glycolysis. This process also creates lactic acid, which makes your muscles ache.
This is why, to improve your breathing efficiency for performance, you need to increase your tolerance of CO2. This will help you to develop your capacity for aerobic respiration. The result? Improved athletic performance.
So, that's the science, but how can you develop your capacity for aerobic respiration? Funny you should ask...
Try this breathing exercise
Box breathing is a real all-rounder to get you started. It will help balance your O2 and CO2 levels to improve your breathing function and help to increase your CO2 tolerance. It will also promote a relaxation response, which is a nice little Brucie bonus.
When you box breathe, it is important you use your diaphragm. It’s the large, dome-shaped muscle that sits at the base of the chest, and it’s your primary breathing muscle: it does 75 percent of the work when you breathe. It also improves the stability of your core and your body’s ability to tolerate intense exercise.
Sit in a comfortable position or lie flat on the floor.
Relax your shoulders.
Put both hands on your lower abdomen.
Breathe in through your nose and into your hands for a count of four, feeling your belly rise. Note: The displacement of air and the organs downwards when using the diaphragm will make your lower belly rise naturally before your chest does. Try not to push with your stomach muscles.
Hold your breath for a count of four. Keep calm and relaxed. Note: Try not to tense your muscles when you’re holding your breath.
Exhale through your nose for a count of four, feeling your belly fall.
Hold your breath for a count of four.
So, to recap: breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold for a count of four, breathe out through your nose for a count of four, hold for four. As your tolerance builds you can increase the counts to five then six and so on.
You may feel a strong desire to breathe more but try to resist it. This is just carbon dioxide building up in your body. What we’re aiming to do is build your tolerance, so try to keep calm and work through it.
Now you know how to do it, take on Stuart's 7-day box breathing challenge.
Stuart Sandeman is breath coach to Olympic Athletes, award winning artists and top business execs. Through his practices Stuart has helped tens of thousands of people transform their lives.