From biohacking and sleep coaches to fitness trackers and vegan protein powder, the world of health and fitness is rife with ways to gain an edge in your workouts. There is, however, a newer take on wellness that costs nothing, requires zero equipment, and can be done whenever and wherever to improve both your physical and mental performance.
If promising new science is accurate, even slight adjustments to your breathing patterns (known in wellness circles as ‘breathwork’) can be transformative, helping you hit PBs in the weights room and milestones in personal growth. Hardly surprising then to learn that it’s one of 2021’s most promising trends in wellness. Here’s why.
Yes, The Way You Breath During Workouts Matters
Just like hitting the squat rack for your legs, putting the miles in before a race, and grinding out press-ups for a stronger upper-body, training your breathing patterns for improvements in health and fitness can pay dividends. First and foremost, it can help you approach a daunting workout, whether that’s a 10-mile training run or a one-rep max in the weights room.
That’s because when your body is introduced into a daunting situation, it reacts with acute stress – often known as the ‘fight or flight’ response – which spikes the production of cortisol (the stress hormone), increases your heart rate, and leads to anxiety.
Similarly, by taking shallow, shorter breaths on autopilot, you could be denying your muscles of oxygen – which is crucial for strength and endurance. Simply put, the more activity you do, the more oxygen is required to keep your body sustaining itself through these activities.
By breathing more efficiently, you’ll be able to exercise harder and for longer and keep your heart rate steady, instead of fighting through spikes and shortness of breath. Thankfully, there are a few simple workarounds, the most popular being ‘diaphragmatic breathing’ (more on that later).
Breathwork and Workouts: What The Experts Say
Richard Blake has been a breathwork and biohacking specialist for three years and coaches athletes to use their breath to gain an edge during training – a large swathe of his clients are CrossFit competitors – which could make the difference between an event win and a crushing loss. “They basically use it [breathwork] for recovery,” he explains. “They’ll be tracking their recovery with a Whoop or an Oura ring and, the next day, their recovery has gone way up, and so has their sleep. Which means they can work out much harder the next day.”
However, stress remains a constant, even for those at the top of their game. “They’re normal people, they’re high-achievers, are often super-anxious and often have things like insomnia because they’re so driven,” says Blake. “They struggle to switch off. What breathwork does is put them into this ‘ceremonial’ space where they can process their trauma, understand their motivation and sleep better for recovery.”
Even heart rate variability (HRV) is affected positively. “Their resting heart rates go down, so do their breaths per minute…they’re less stressed.” All of this, Blake explains, can have a huge metric impact. “A bit of insight from a breathwork session can add a few extra kilos to their max lifts…you’re hyper-oxygenating the blood [and] creating more energy for the cells.”
How to Breath When Working Out
As with training modalities, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to using breathwork in sport and exercise. Each discipline requires a unique approach. One such tactic is nasal breathing – teaching yourself to intake the majority of air through your nose – which, Blake says, has been instrumental to his clients, in both sleep patterns and exercise.
Primarily, the benefits are three-fold: “We want to be breathing through our nose much more than we do from our mouth. It keeps you calm, especially in extreme exercise, but the nasal passage also conditions the air and filters out bacteria and viruses through your nasal passageway. It also increases the temperature of the air so that it’s easier to process by moisturising it…you’re not dehydrating yourself so quickly.”
However, this doesn’t mean you should tape up before you lace up: “For a triathlon, you could do the whole thing [through nasal breathing], but with CrossFit, where you can have an hour-long workout or sometimes a three-minute workout, you’ll want to be mouth breathing as you can take in more oxygen.”
If you’re used to working with weights, you’ve likely tried the ‘exhale during the hard part’ tactic, which is often taught to help novice lifters grind out additional reps by using exhaled breath as a driving force. But you can go one better before you even touch a weight.
Start to regularly use diaphragmatic breathing techniques, found below, to maximise your workout performance. Doing these will allow your diaphragm to lower during every inhale, helping your lungs fill with more oxygen, increasing your ‘stroke volume’ (how much air you inhale during each breath). In turn, this affects circulation, your cardiorespiratory capacity, and recovery time.
Runners can benefit, too. According to a study on “inspiratory muscle training” published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, participants ran around 12 percent further (some climbed to 15 percent after a targeted warm-up) after four weeks of breathwork training. It’s not just hot air.
Which means, just like your exercise programme, it’s not a one-stop shop. It requires several sessions a week to make noticeable differences. Before your next workout, make a point of ‘drilling’ the exercises we’ve listed below to really get a hold on your pre-workout breathwork routine.
Boost Your Workouts With These Simple Breathwork Exercises
Ready to shoot the breeze? Let’s first assess how you’re breathing. Take a breath and inhale air. Are you performing a shrug-like movement? If so, you’re a ‘vertical breather’, and not using your diaphragm to its full potential. Below, we’ve assembled a handful of breathwork exercises that can help you nix stress, improve sleep, and help you gauge more of an understanding of how to use breathwork.
- Sit upright in a chair with your knees bent and relax your head, neck and shoulders.
- Place one hand right below your ribs and the other hand on your upper chest.
- Take a slow breath in through your nose, allowing your stomach to move out against your hand.
- Tighten the muscles in your stomach and allow them to fall inward as you breathe out through pursed lips.
The Valsalva Maneuver
- Used in weightlifting circles, the The Valsalva Maneuver helps you use breath holds to push through a heavy lift.
- Inhale a deep breath of air – around 80 percent of your maximum lung capacity.
- Once your belly feels “full’ (you should still be able to keep your mouth closed), hold your breath.
- Begin the concentric (lowering) phase of the lift, still holding your breath. Your abs should feel tightly contracted.
- At the “sticking point”, where the weight feels heaviest, exhale aggressively and push through the eccentric (lifting) phase.
Here, Blake walks you through one of his go-to sessions for opening up your nasal cavities and airways. You’ll be able to draw more air into your lungs, drift into deeper sleep and, if done frequently, improve your V02 max.