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How to Breathe for Every Type of Exercise
Breathe in, breathe out — simple right? Not so fast. When it comes to exercise, the art of inhaling and exhaling may be a little more complicated than we think. Should we breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth? And wait — what’s a diaphragm exactly? Whether the goal is running, lifting, or warrior posing with ease, read on to discover the best breathing techniques to put optimal performance well within reach.
Breathe Easy — Your Action Plan
Whether it’s time to hit the turf, track, or squat rack, breathing isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind (not falling on your face tends to take priority). But smooth and efficient breathing is crucial for delivering the oxygen our body needs to perform its functions properly. Proper breathing can also help athletes exercise longer with less effort, nix side stitches, and even calm the mind. With a little extra awareness — and some practice — that A Game could be just a few breaths away. Here’s what to keep in mind:
Nailing the right running form, tempo, and strategy can be challenging enough, but a runner’s work doesn’t end there. Huffing and puffing your way ‘round the track won’t get you to the finish line. In fact, studies show that improper breathing technique can impair speed and performance .
How to do it right: While there’s no golden rule, many runners find it most comfortable to take one breath for every two foot strikes, says Alison McConnell, a breathing expert and author of Breathe Strong Perform Better. This means taking two steps (one left, one right) while breathing in, and two steps while breathing out — also known as the 2:2 rhythm  .
Why it works: Because the diaphragm and surrounding organs are all subject to the forces of gravity, McConnell says, synchronizing the breath to running cadence will keep the organs from putting unnecessary pressure on the diaphragm, which can impede breathing (and make running more uncomfortable than it needs to be!).
The Nose vs. Mouth Debate: While there have been some studies comparing nasal and oral breathing during exercise, most have used small sample sizes with somewhat inconclusive results . “My advice is to breathe via the mouth during exercise, as this is the route of least resistance,” McConnell says. “Breathing through the nose during exercise just makes it needlessly hard.”
On the flip side, some experts say that nose breathing has its own benefits, including increased CO2 saturation in the blood, which creates a more calming effect, says Dr. Roy Sugarman, Director of Applied Neuroscience for Athletes’ Performance and the U.S. National Men’s Soccer Team. Breathing in through the nose can also help warm the air entering the lungs (cold weather workouts, we’re looking at you!), and might minimize allergen intake, says professional triathlete and Ironwoman Terra Castro. Bottom line: Test the airways, and see what feels right for you and your lungs.
High-Intensity Sports (Football, Basketball, etc.)
Prefer taking one for the team? When a 250-lb linebacker is headed your way (and running for the locker room is not an option), breathing easy isn’t exactly cake. High-intensity sports can easily take our breath away thanks to demanding cardio component and the barrage of tackles, kicks, and hits.
How to do it right: “Breathing muscles are an integral part of the core stabilizing and postural control systems,” McConnell says. Intuitively, this means when anticipating a load or an impact, it’s best to take a deep breath and then brace the core. Not only will this make us more difficult to knock over (take that, LT), it will also help protect the spine, McConnell adds.
Go big or go home: While there isn’t one correct way to breathe on the playing field or while running, the breath should come from the diaphragm (the most efficient breathing muscle) — not the chest. “In general, the rib cage should expand in a 3D pattern, top to bottom, back to front, and to the sides,” says Anna Hartman, director of Performance Physical Therapy at Athletes’ Performance.
Why panting won’t pay off: Take a cue from Kobe, if you will. Breathing deeper, calmer, and more efficiently can also give athletes a psychological edge against their opponents, McConnell says. Showing no signs of fatigue will only help psyche out the other team.
Aerobic activity isn’t the only exercise that can benefit from good breathing form. Anyone who hits the weights regularly has probably heard exhaling on the exertion (or effort phase of the exercise) is the way to go. It’s sound logic: Contracting the respiratory muscles will help brace the load during heavier lifts while maintaining lumbar stability .
How to do it right: Using the bench press as an example, exhale slowly and continuously while pressing the bar, then inhale at the top of the life or on the return. Just remember that once that barbell is pressed, the weight doesn’t vanish, McConnell explains, so be sure to keep the core engaged to protect the spine, similar to preparing for impact during contact sports.
When in doubt: Don’t forget to breathe out! Holding the breath increases pressure inside the chest (which is good for stability), but holding it too long can impede the return of blood to the heart and raise blood pressure (definitely not the goal here) .
How to do it right: For sama vritti, or “equal breathing,” match an equal length inhale to an equal length exhale. This fundamental style of breath is said to calm the nervous system, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress, says yoga instructor and Greatist Expert Rebecca Pacheco. To power through more rigorous types of yoga, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga, many yogis rely on ujjayi breath, (aka “victorious breath”). Simply breathe in and out through the nose, maintaining a slight contraction in the back of the throat. If you sound a bit like Darth Vader, you’re doing it right, Pacheco insists.
What not to do: When it’s time for Warrior IIIs, wheelbarrows, and other holy-crap-this-is-hard poses, it’s common to hold your breath. Take that as a sign of overexertion, Pacheco says. Instead, take a break to refocus, breathe, and then hop back into the pose whenever you’re ready.
Still short of breath? There is such thing as strength training for the respiratory muscles, which has been shown to improve performance in endurance and high-intensity sports. There’s even an app for that (Breathe Strong), developed by McConnell to help athletes breathe stronger and more efficiently. Ditching the cigarettes, correcting bad posture, and keeping allergies and asthma in check are also key to better breathing. So whether it’s the first lap or the fourth quarter, go ahead and let the breath maximize your potential for success.
Does breathing properly improve your athletic performance? Let us know how your lungs help you compete in the comments below.
- Reconsidering the Effects of Respiratory Constraints on the Optimal Running Speed. Willcockson, M.A., Wall-Scheffler, C.M. Department of Biology, Seattle Pacific University, and Department of Anthropology, University of Washington. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2012 Jan 3. [Epub ahead of print]⤴
- Daniels, Jack. Daniels' Running Formula, Second Edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2005. 116.⤴
- McConnell, Alison. Breathe Strong, Perform Better. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2011.⤴
- Influence of nasal airflow temperature and pressure on alae nasi electrical activity. Wheatley, J.R., Amis, T.C., Engel, L.A. Thoracic Medicine Unit, Westmead Hospital, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Journal of Applied Physiology, 1991 Dec; 71(6):2283-91.⤴
- Breath control during manual free-style lifting of a maximally tolerated load. Lamberg, E.M., Hagins, M. Department of Physical Therapy, School of Health Technology and Management, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Ergonomics,2010 Mar; 53(3):385-92.⤴
- Effect of breathing techniques on blood pressure response to resistance exercise. Linsenbardt, S.T., Thomas, T.R., Madsen, R.W. Hammons Heart Institute, Springfield, MO. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 1992 Jun; 26(2):97-100.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
Advance weightlifters and powerlifters hold their breath during the eccentric phase of a lift in what's called the Valsalva maneuver. The increased intra-abdominal pressure acts as pneumatic stability for the spine and to give the core muscles something to clamp down on. Many lifters then hiss the air out during the concentric phase as the core muscles clamp down harder to create more tension in the body.
You said: The Nose vs. Mouth Debate: While there have been some studies comparing nasal and oral breathing during exercise, most have used small sample sizes with somewhat inconclusive results
Reference  is "Influence of nasal airflow temperature and pressure on alae nasi electrical activity."
I don't think this is the right reference. Could you provide an alternative, or if it is the correct reference, please explain how it links to the above.
@Jordan Shakeshaft Hmmm... yes, but I don't see that that study relates to exercise.
Breathing through your mouth means that you breathe out more air per breath and this lowers your level of carbon dioxide. This causes a pH shift towards that means haemoglobin clings much more tightly to oxygen and you don't get the same oxygen release to your exercising muscle cells... therefore peak performance is reduced. Counter to this is that you use a little mor energy to breathe through your nose, but there are many other benefits and so works out as the better option.
Obviously at peak exercise nose breathing can become quite uncomfortable and less efficient, but with lots of specific breathing training exercises and practising exercising with mouth closed it can be learned.
For someone who has done none of this training yes I agree that it is hard, but with practice benefits are gained. Maximising nose breathing also shortens recovery time.
And.... lower levels of CO2 in your blood cause bronchoconstriction, leading to increased airways resistance and making the work of breathing higher.
There's a lot to this, and generally the benefits or nose breathing are poorly understood.
I like the idea for this post, and as a runner I use breathing as a proxy for effort level, to make sure I am running a workout as intended. Therefore, I think your recommendation of one breath every two strides is a bit simplistic and, in fact, a bit aggressive. I only breathe that frequently during my most intense workouts. For most of my "easy" miles (where the focus is on aerobic development, and where most people running for general fitness should spend a vast majority of their time), the breathing rate is more on the order of one breath per four steps.
Very interesting article...regarding the nose vs. mouth debate, I have always been told to breath in through my nose and out through the mouth while I was running track. I apply it to all sports that I play and I find that using that technique makes my breathing more controlled, and I also feel like I am using less energy on breathing. When lifting heavy weights Ive always been told to breathe while pushing the weight up but In my experience I feel more strength for lifting heavy while doing a valsalva, and resuming breathing when Im not actually moving the weight down or up.
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There's only running and strength training that I can relate to, but with running I normally follow that 2:2 rule, but I heard somewhere that in the army people are trained with 3:2, 3 steps for an intake, 2 for an exhale, I've tried it, but haven't seen much difference, just thought I'd add it in here!
@Jordan Shakeshaft Aha well I can't be sure it's taught in all armies.. It was an article written by an ex soldier that I read, which gave his account of how he struggled with the running because his breathing was so erratic, but after being taught a 3:2 breathing pattern his endurance increased dramatically.. I have no idea if it's better than 2:2 though :)
@Jordan Shakeshaft Just re-read it, and I'm not actually sure it is taught in the army, it's just the 'military' website that made me think aha, here it is anyway: http://www.military.com/military-fitness/workouts/breathing-during-exercise :)
Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!
@waterbury Haha that's great! Thanks so much.
I actually read an article in Runner's World magazine how the 3:2 (or 2:1 or 4:3) running method instead of the 2:2 or 3:3 or 4:4 switches the power stride from right to left and again to keep from stressing the same side of the body which is supposed to help prevent injury. I have yet to try this because I'm still recovering from a contusion to the left ischial tuberosity since January. Maybe there's an underlying reason for the focused power stride on my part, but I guess that's a different story.
Really nice article, Jordan.
Regarding the 2:2 breathing, I remember reading long ago that if you start to develop a "stitch" while running to go an even cadence breath (2:2, 3:3, whatever is comfortable) then after a short series of strides, switch on which foot you start the count. Back when I used to get "stitch" cramps, this totally worked.
As for nose vs mouth, I fully subscribe to the nasal inhale. However, when I'm really exerting myself in any format of exercise, it will invariably come to pass that I'll start inhaling through my mouth. But then as soon as possible, I return to the nasal inhale. It settles the nervous system and allows me to regain an equilibrium sooner than huffing and puffing. To settle my nervous system down quickly, I'll also take in a large inhale through the nose and hold the air inside for a short pause before exhaling and I'll try to exhale slowly and with purpose.