The power of breathing

You know that training, nutrition and sleep can make a dramatic difference to your athletic performance – but what about breathwork? Here’s what you need to know about the science of breathing

Breathe in. Breathe out. Now stop.

You do that, on average, around 20,000 times a day, but how often – apart from when you’re reading a sentence like this – do you consciously consider what you’re doing? And yet, science is slowly confirming what yogis and qigong practitioners have been saying for years – that breathing purposefully can be calming, improve concentration, help you sleep better, maybe even help your immune system. All contributing factors towards improved athletic performance.

Okay, you can take another breathe now. Feel better? Great. 

Basics first. You probably already know that breathing is a key part of meditation – most of the modern crop of mind-soothing apps will talk you through doing it better, but Buddhists, among others, have been going it alone for years. What’s less clear is why it works: but the most accepted theory is that, since you naturally breathe faster when you’re stressed and slower when you’re calm, consciously breathing faster or more slowly can send a signal to your body to get ready for action…or chill out. 

It’s all to do with the nervous system, which is divided into two key parts: the sympathetic nervous system, which controls your body’s fight or flight responses, and the parasympathetic, sometimes known as the ‘rest and digest’ part. When the sympathetic part’s activated by dangerous or stressful situations, a jolt of hormones boosts the body's alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles.

Evolution’s also ensured that everything else starts to shut down when this happens – after all, if you were planning to fight a sabretooth tiger, you’d want your body’s resources focused on that, rather than digesting the berries you’d just eaten or fighting off your tickly cough. 

The problem, stress researchers suggest, is that modern life switches the sympathetic nervous system on and the parasympathetic – which deals from everything from digestion to your immune system and muscular repear – off far too often, as it responds to every worry like a full-scale tiger attack. After all, we’ve evolved to cope with long periods of nothing much happening and very rare terrifying situations – not the constant, mid-level anxiety of being on Twitter.

In the short term, this kind of chronic stress can impair your ability to think or sleep properly, but over the long term, it’s been linked to high blood pressure, fatigue, obesity and heart disease.

This is where better breathing can help. Take slow, steady breaths and your body gets the message that everything’s under control, and activates the parasympathetic system, leading to a cascade of helpful effects. In one small-scale study, for instance, 12 weeks of daily yoga and ‘coherent’ breathing increased subjects’ levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a brain chemical that has calming and anti-anxiety effects. 

So, where do you start? Here are two simple forms of breathing to incorporate into your daily routine. 

Box breathing

Picture a square. As you take in a four-second breath (Mississipis optional), visualise traveling up one side of the square. Next, imagine moving across the top of the square during four counts of holding your breath. Then follow your breath down the right side of the box as you exhale, and watch it travel across the bottom of the square as you hold your breath with empty lungs.

This style of breathing, often taught to Navy SEALs, will calm you down, while picturing the box provides an anchor for your attention and allows you to get into a rhythm quickly. It's one to use as a daily practice  – it’s meant to ground you and leave you alert but calm, ready for action. Best used first thing in the morning as a five-minute alternative to meditation, it’ll also calm you down if you’re struggling to sleep at night.

Tactical breathing

This is a more rapid-fire solution to being faced with a fight-or-flight situations – it’s another SEAL trick, but you can use it when your boss is demanding the impossible or someone keeps fouling you playing five-a-side. Here, you’ll eliminate the two breath holds, and simply breathe in for four seconds, then out for eight. Tactical breathing is your short-term solution – use it throughout the day as and when you need to take a moment to reset.

Breathe through your nostrils for both of these tactics, allowing you to draw the air deep into your lungs, rather than prompting the shallow chest-breathing your body associates with emergencies. For best results, focus on smooth inhales and exhales, filling and emptying your lungs with each breath. 

Regularly use both, and you’ll eventually teach your body to breathe better without any conscious input from you, keeping you calmer and more productive throughout the day. Not every breath you take – don’t sing it – can be perfect, but by focusing on just a few, you’ll be more aware of what the rest are doing for you. That’s 20,000 chances a day to make your life a little better.