12/27/2018 1 Comment
We can survive weeks without food, days without water, and only minutes without air.
However, most of our attention as athletes goes to nutrition, some to hydration, and very little to breathing.
Choosing what to eat and staying properly hydrated takes conscious effort and attention, so what’s the point of paying attention to breathing if my body is taking care of it for me anyway?
This is exactly what I’ve assumed for almost my entire life, until my yoga practice led me on a deep exploration and study of traditional and cutting edge breathing techniques that have changed my life far more than swapping out romaine for kale.
What makes breathing practice so powerful is its ability to change the chemistry of the body, bringing a chain reaction of benefits that all serve as a competitive advantage for any athlete.
Here’s what purposeful breathing can do for you:
I think breathing is ignored because it’s not glamorous and it takes patience. We love superfoods, energy drinks, and any electrolyte liquid, because we can see them and, therefore, we can easily translate their look and packaging with an improved self-image. Any good cook (or marketer) knows that you eat with your eyes first, but seeing something doesn’t mean what you’re about to consume is actually making you better.
Once you get past the challenge of looking past what you can see, the next part is even more difficult: being patient. To gain a competitive advantage, you generally need to do things that most people aren’t willing to do and most things people aren’t willing to do go against human nature. Thankfully for you, most humans are fickle and want to see the ROI at precisely the moment after they make our investment. With a little patience and effort, you give yourself a healthy and sustainable advantage over your fellow humans.
Now that I’ve gotten my disclaimers out of the way, here are three breathing exercises you can start doing today to start earning your competitive advantage.
1) Breathe Through Your Nose
Day and night. With nasal breathing you’re doing a lot of good for your whole body. In addition to filtering, warming, and moisturizing air before it reaches the lungs, you’re also regulating the amount of oxygen you’re taking in and carbon dioxide you’re breathing out. This will help keep your blood pH in balance and also keep carbon dioxide in your blood cells. No matter what your 6th grade gym teacher told you, carbon dioxide is your friend, not your enemy. I’ll save the “why” for the finale. Be patient.
Remember that thing I mentioned about deep breaths being counterproductive? That’s because we tend to inhale and exhale deeply through the mouth which (on the inhale) activates our upper chest and, therefore, our “fight or flight” and stress response, and (on the exhale) releases too much carbon dioxide. If you’re going to take a deep breath, make it through the nose only.
2) Minimal Breathing
When nasal breathing starts to become routine, next is the practice of minimizing the breath as much as possible. This is a focused exercise and should be done sitting in a comfortable seated position and not while doing anything else. The need for your undivided attention is because this exercise asks you to reduce your breathing to the point of mild to moderate discomfort — not exactly a state to be in while operating heavy machinery.
To do it, find a comfortable seat, place one hand over your heart and the other over your stomach and breathe normally with both hand rising and falling equal distances (about an inch or so).
Continue breathing like this for about 30 seconds.
As you get into a rhythm, start to reduce the size of your breaths with each inhale and exhale, hands still rising and falling the same distance but a smaller distance (less than an inch).
Continue reducing the size of your breaths until you’ve created a mild to moderate discomfort. Never reduce the breath to the point of pain or lightheadedness, or past the point of being able to regain control of your breath with 2-3 normal breaths.
Once you’ve found a maximum level of discomfort that you can control, maintain this rhythm and breathing amount for 5 minutes.
Repeat 3-5x per day.
3) Hold Your Breath
Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the discomfort of the Minimal Breathing exercise, now it’s time to start holding your breath. This one is a bit more fun because you can do it anywhere and anytime. I like mixing it in when I’m walking somewhere, sitting at my desk, or just taking the dog outside.
The goal here is to surpass the level of discomfort of Minimal Breathing, getting to a moderate or strong desire to breathe. Again, the same rules apply: Never reduce the breath to the point of pain or lightheadedness, or past the point of being able to regain control of your breath with 2-3 normal breaths.
To do this exercise well, you can be stationary or moving (even running) and all you have to do is take a normal exhale, hold your breath, and start counting seconds (if stationary) or steps (if moving).
As you start to develop a tolerance to carbon dioxide building in the lungs you’ll start to notice the number of seconds and steps increasing. There’s no right number here, but higher is definitely better.
Why These Exercises?
Every breathing exercise mentioned above helps you develop a tolerance to carbon dioxide. Though we’ve been trained to think it’s the bad guy (i.e. “in with the good, out with the bad”), carbon dioxide contributes to an essential bodily function that all athletes need: the release of oxygen to the tissues of the body.
It seems logical that bigger inhales means more oxygen in the bloodstream, but that’s actually false. The oxygen saturation of our blood cells generally hovers between 95-99%, so breathing in more oxygen is like pouring more water into a cup that’s already overflowing.
The problem isn’t getting more oxygen into the blood, it’s releasing it out of the blood. Enter carbon dioxide and its friend hemoglobin. Not to get too technical here, but hemoglobin is a primary actor in red blood cells and serves the function of releasing oxygen from the blood cell and into the body. Carbon dioxide is hugely important here because hemoglobin releases oxygen more readily and efficiently into the body in the presence of carbon dioxide.
This might not seem important, but this little fact can seriously change your life, my fellow humans.
With more oxygen released into your muscle tissues, less lactic acid builds up during exercise allowing you to perform better and recover faster. In other words, for my fitness nerds out there, with more CO2 in your bloodstream, the better your VO2 max. Boom.
There are other benefits as well, like balancing your blood pH, but the main one for athletes is the benefits during and between training.
The reason the three exercises above are so beneficial for athletes is because they increase your tolerance to carbon dioxide and, therefore, bring all of the benefits of more oxygen being released into your body (and not being squandered in the bloodstream.)
Now that we’re at the end of the article, I’ll admit that nutrition and hydration are important. Are they more or less important than breathing? I really don’t know.
Having started paying more and more attention to my breathing practice in yoga and everything else, all I can really say is I’ve noticed significant and meaningful changes for the better. I’ve done every form of cardio there is and I’ve been a runner since I was 16, but I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own lungs and body than the past 4 months of breath training.
From personal experience, the time and attention to consistent, simple breathing exercises, and maybe tolerating some discomfort along the way, are worth the internal revolution that follows.
Joe Pace is the Founder of Icewater Yoga, a yoga app with 500+ classes designed specifically for athletes. Fascinated by the intersection of yoga and sport, his goal is to help athletes develop a consistent yoga practice. Visit IcewaterYoga.com to practice with Joe and take athlete-inspired classes with his team of teachers.