Breathing is one of a very few functions in the body that run perfectly well independently, but where we can also take conscious control. By doing so we can produce surprisingly large health and performance benefits. In this post, we are going to take a brief look at 5 of the top breathing hacks, with links to more information. If you’re not already doing any of these, you will probably be pleasantly surprised at how effective they are. If you are already doing one, adding the others produces additional benefits!
1. Inspiratory Muscle Training
This is probably the one with the largest bang for the buck. As athletes, we are very familiar with training our skeletal and core muscles, but the diaphragm is the sheet of muscle that does the work during inhalation. Specific resistance training of your inspiratory muscles reduces breathing effort and improves performance. Devices such as the POWERbreathe® require less than 5 minutes training per day and deliver laboratory proven results. As well as making your breathing more efficient over time, inspiratory muscle training can reduce exercise induced asthma, and can help reduce your perception of effort (RPE) when performed immediately before intensive training. More info at Breathe Strong.
2. Coherent breathing
When we breathe slowly and deeply, our heart rate patterns (Heart Rate Variability or HRV) can synchronise with our breathing to bring on a feeling of calmness. HRV peaks when breathing at a rate of about 6 breaths per minute, but this varies between individuals from 4-7 breaths per minute. As well as immediately reducing sensations of stress and anxiety, slow deep breathing has a number of documented long term health benefits. Coherent breathing in athletes is also considered to be the basis of the flow state, where sportspeople achieve better and more consistent performances than they thought they were capable of.
Although you will get some benefit by breathing in for a count of 5s and then out again for the same length of time, the largest benefits are obtained when breathing and HRV are fully entrained, which requires a sensor and app. BreatheSync is a free app which can get you started, and which produces a score to help you gauge your progress.
Anyone who has tried yoga or meditation will know that taking control of your breathing is the cornerstone to achieving a mindful state where distracting thoughts are banished, and we appreciate the present moment for what it is.
The idea is quite simple:
- Find a place that is quiet and you won’t be disturbed
- Sit upright, close your eyes and rest one hand on your chest, the other on your belly
- Place your tongue in contact with the roof of your mouth
- Breathe slowly & deeply in and out through your nose
- Feel your heart accelerate as you breathe in & slow down as you breathe out
- Continue to focus on your breath for up to 10 mins, then slowly open your eyes. You’ll be amazed at how much calmer you feel!
4. Alternate nostril breathing
In a sense, this one is a combination of the first three, because it combines slow deep breathing with a small amount of inspiratory resistance that lengthens the breathing cycle, making you more likely to breathe coherently!
It’s also easy to do. Again, first find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed, sit upright and close your eyes. Place your right thumb to block your right nostril and inhale for several seconds, then, remove your thumb and block your left nostril with the first two fingers of your right hand whilst your exhale. Repeat 10-12 times, or for longer if you wish. More info on the benefits here.
5. Nasal breathing during exercise
This is one I only came across recently, but which I’ve found very useful for improving efficiency, perceived effort and remaining mindful during low intensity training.
Many of us breathe through our mouths whilst exercising, but this is not ideal, as we are not using the filters and warming pathway the nasal passages provide. This is especially important for asthma sufferers, or when exercising in areas with high pollen or air pollution to reduce the number of airborne particles getting into our lungs. We also release more nitric oxide when breathing through the nose, which helps relax blood vessels, improving circulation to the working muscles.
The idea is to breathe in through your nose, then out again keeping your mouth lightly closed the whole time. Doesn’t sound hard, right? Well, as we found, it’s the breathing out part which is harder, but using the nasal passages not only helps you regulate your breathing to be slower and deeper, but it’s also a good way of ensuring you don’t go over what’s called the first ventilatory (or aerobic) threshold, when performing zone 1 / 2 training. More on the benefits of nasal breathing during exercise.
If you do try one of these methods let us know what effect it has on your ithlete HRV!