“Just breathe,” I said to an athlete during a conditioning piece. Hunched over with hands on knees and trying to gulp what appeared to be chunks of air, their response was “How do I breathe?” I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. See, breathing is like a beating heart. Unless due to a birth defect or some form of trauma, it’s an innate activity. We don’t have to think about breathing for it to happen, it just happens because if it didn’t, we’d die.
Breathing is largely controlled by the autonomic division of the nervous system (ANS). The ANS acts subconsciously to control bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing and digestion. Although changes in your breathing happen subconsciously, we are able to consciously affect respiration. It’s a skill essential to life and performance in the gym, and better breathing is trainable, just as strength and endurance are. As your ability to control your breath improves, so does your ability to maintain focus and presence in all situations.
Before we go through some tips to controlling your breathing, some knowledge. Your respiratory rate increasing has more to do with getting rid of carbon dioxide than getting more oxygen in. Carbon dioxide is a toxic byproduct and incorrect breathing. such as hyperventilating (unduly increasing the rate of breathing), increase carbon dioxide levels. Do you have the habit of taking lots of quick and shallow breaths before a heavy lift or at the start of a metcon? That’s hyperventilating and can make you feel light headed, dizzy and can even result in you blacking out. So it wasn’t because you were bracing so hard 😉
This is your first step to taking control of your breathing. It helps to be in a quiet place with little distractions. Without trying to change your breathing , simply take note of your breathing. How many times do you breath (in and out) in a minute when relaxed and at rest? What’s happening to your abdomen and rib cage as you breath? Are you breathing in/out through the nose or mouth, or both? The idea is to be able to clear as much thought from the mind in order to be able to devote most of your attention to your breathing.
- Put your hand on your belly
- Take a deep breath in through the nostrils and push your hand out with your belly
- Then exhale fully, pushing your hand into your belly towards your spine
- As you repeat, focus on expanding the belly, then your lower ribs and finally the upper ribs before exhaling
This is where you start to control the rate of breathing more. Remember to focus on the belly breathing.
- Time the length of your inhalation, starting with 3 seconds
- Exhale for the same duration
- Start your next breath in immediately at the end of the 3 second exhalation but ensure that you’ve pressed every last bit of air out during the 3 second interval
- As you improve your ability to fully inhale and exhale, increase the duration but keep the durations of the inhale and exhale exactly the same
This is something you can implement in any situation to regain control of your breathing, which in turn improves focus and performance.
This final step is what the SealFit team use and recommend for the ultimate control of breathing. If it works for Navy Seals, it should work for you! Once you’ve mastered the timed breathing, move on to this.
- The belly and timed breathing techniques remain the same as above – belly breathing in through the nostrils with equal inhalation and exhalation durations
- Now, once you’ve breathed in, hold your breath for the same duration. Let’s go with 3 seconds again.
- Exhale for 3 seconds as before, but now, once you’ve pressed all air out, wait 3 seconds before breathing in again
- So it looks like this: In for 3s > Hold for 3s > Out for 3s > Wait for 3s > In for 3s and so on
- Gradually increase the durations as you get better, but maintain equal durations for each portion
Applying it to Workouts
The above methods are what you’re going to apply at rest during quiet time. That’s how you begin to develop better control of your breathing. But you’ll need to start applying it to training too, which will in turn set you up to manage your breathing in life situations too. The best way to apply the timed and box breathing techniques in a workout are to use your reps as the tempo. You’re typically better at breathing during strength work because it forms part of your bracing technique, so let’s focus on metcons.
- Running example: Breath in for two steps, out for two steps. Change the tempo according to your running pace.
- Rowing example: Breath in as you recover, hold your breath in the catch, breath out as you drive, pause in the release before going back to breath in the recovery
- Gymnastics and weightlifting movements: Breath in before you move or during the eccentric phase, exhale as you move or during the concentric phase, breath in and out if you do rest at the midpoint of the movement
These are just examples of how you apply breathing control techniques in a workout. It takes a lot of time to master, but the first step is awareness.
When practising the breathing control during quiet time, start with three to five minutes a day and then up it to 10 minutes. It requires daily effort, just as fitness does. Likewise, improvements will be dependent on your diligence.
At the very least, just remember to (focus on) breathe!