Whether you already exercise regularly or are just getting back into the swing of things, learning how to breathe properly during exercise can do wonders for your performance, stamina, and recovery rate. Knowing when to inhale and exhale during exercise can be tricky, but with a little practice, proper technique can quickly become a healthy habit!
Unfortunately, most of us aren’t aware of proper breathing techniques when running, lifting weights, or even doing yoga or push-ups. This isn’t something we’re taught in school, and even professional trainers can easily overlook our erratic and problematic breathing patterns.
The importance of breathing during exercise
Poor breathing habits can sabotage your performance as well as your enjoyment of exercise. Learning to breathe properly during exercise can help prevent dizziness, clear lactic acid from muscle tissue, eliminate carbon dioxide more efficiently, and increase tissue oxygenation, meaning fewer cramps and better muscle recovery and performance. Proper breathing techniques can also help increase nitric oxide in your blood, which makes it easier for your arteries to relax and maintain good circulation. This technique therefore creates efficient delivery of oxygen and nutrients as well as proper elimination of metabolic waste products to and from muscle tissue, respectively. When you undergo an initial assessment with a quality personal trainer, they will usually look at both your functional movement and how you are breathing during exercise. A good trainer can tell if your breathing is shallow, lacking rhythm, or is focused on the top of your chest. This type of inefficient breathing can seriously hamper your training efforts and may increase your risk of poor health in other areas. As a rule, you should exhale upon exertion and inhale at rest. Holding your breath while exercising can deprive muscles of oxygen, reduce performance, and increase the risk of cramps and soreness. There’s however some debate over this rule when it comes to weightlifting, which we talk about below.
Chest breathing vs. belly breathing
Breathing from the top of your chest uses muscles in your neck and shoulders that aren’t really designed for this purpose. This can increase shoulder and neck tension, lead to a weaker diaphragm, and compromise blood flow during exercise. In contrast, breathing from your belly or abdomen helps strengthen your diaphragm and helps you get a full breath for better physical performance. Learning to breathe from your abdomen can also help improve your awareness of when your breathing is shallow. Slumped or poor posture and stress are major culprits when it comes to shallow breathing, even in trained athletes. In contrast, adopting proper posture and paying attention to your breathing can help you perform better and manage stress more effectively. Deeper, slower breathing helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which may quieten your fight-or-flight response.
Nose vs. mouth breathing during exercise
There’s no hard and fast rule for which is better during exercise, breathing through your nose or breathing through your mouth. In general, you face less resistance when breathing through your mouth, so this is often the better option if you find yourself struggling to breathe through your nose. However, breathing through your nose helps warm the air before it enters your lungs, which is great if you’re exercising in colder temperatures. Nose breathing also helps filter some potential pathogens, allergens, and pollutants, and prevents the mucosal membranes in your mouth from drying out. Accordingly, breathing through your nose, when possible, may mean less irritation to the airways, and a reduced risk of bronchospasm.
Effective breathing during yoga practice
Breathing through your nose may offer added benefits when practising yoga and other forms of exercise designed to help you relax. This is because nose breathing increases carbon dioxide saturation in your blood, which has a calming effect. Incidentally, there’s a whole facet of yoga (pranayama) dedicated to breathing, with evidence that practising pranayama can help enhance exercise tolerance. In yoga terminology, “equal breathing”, or sami vritti, is where you match the length of your inhalation to your exhalation. This may be best for hatha yoga, or yoga practice where the goal is to achieve a state of calm relaxation. For more robust types of yoga (ashtanga, vinyasa, etc.) you may want to try ujjayi breath, or “victorious breath”. This can make your breath sound a bit odd because it consists of breathing through your nose while contracting the back of your throat. If you find yourself cramping up during yoga or feeling more stressed at the end of the class than when you started, examine your breathing. Are you holding your breath when you get to the harder poses? This common behaviour can make it harder to achieve the pose and relax into it. Try taking a quick break to shake off your tension. When you’re ready to try the pose again, be mindful of your breathing and… relax.
How to breathe when running
In practice, proper breathing during running looks a lot like a 3:2 ratio of inhaling to exhaling. This means inhaling for three steps (left-right-left) and exhaling for two (right-left). Following this pattern while running can help you remain focused as you develop a new rhythm. If you’re having trouble breathing while exercising, you might want to run a little slower and work on developing this 3:2 breathing pattern. If you’re sprinting, you’re more likely to naturally fall into a 2:1 inhale-exhale ratio. This can work for short bursts of exercise, but is unsustainable over a longer run as your heart rate rises and lactic acid increases in your muscles.
Proper breathing while exercising with weights
If you’ve not heard of the Valsalva maneuver, you may not be breathing right when lifting heavy weights. The Valsalva maneuver consists of taking a deep breath just before lifting and then holding that breath during the most strenuous part of your lift. This technique increases intra-abdominal pressure, which can strengthen your core and let you lift heavier loads more easily. Watch any professional weightlifter and you should be able to see this in action. Yes, this goes counter to the general rule of thumb about how to breathe during exercise and could increase your risk of stroke if you have high blood pressure or another health issue. This is because the technique briefly increases your blood pressure. So, as always, it’s best to clear any new type of exercise with your health care practitioner just to be sure. The Valsalva maneuver is only intended for use when lifting heavier weights. For less strenuous weightlifting, the usual rule applies: exhale during the lift and inhale during the least strenuous part of the movement.
How to breathe better
If you’re struggling to breathe efficiently during exercise, there’s an app for that! Breathe Strong was designed for athletes, but can help even the occasional gym-goer develop better breathing habits. Interestingly, there is also some evidence that a technique called Controlled Frequency Breathing (CFB) used by swimmers can have benefits for other types of exercise. CFB involves holding your breath for approximately 7–10 strokes before taking another breath. In one study, healthy young men who learned CFB while swimming for 12 training sessions went on to have an 11% improvement in maximum expiratory pressure and a 6% improvement in running economy. And, of course, quitting smoking, and maintaining good posture and a healthy body weight can also help improve lung function. Whether you’re already an athlete or are struggling to get back into exercise, learning how to breathe properly when running, doing yoga, or just taking a stroll around the block can make physical activity easier, more enjoyable, and even better for your health!
Written by Leigh Matthews
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