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Can You Breathe Yourself Fitter?
By WH Staff | Oct 5, 2021
You’re all over breathwork for mindfulness, but now research suggests it can also be the key to improving athletic performance. Is it legit or just a load of hot air? WH investigates
Were you to embark on a 10k with this year’s new breed of runners, you might think you’d wandered into a sporting dystopia. Mouths clamped shut, they tread for kilometres breathing just through their noses, sometimes holding their breath for strides at a time.
Welcome to the world of breath optimisation. On the wings of wellness, breathwork is gliding out of the yoga camp and bumping up next to nutrition and sleep in your fitness toolkit. And the latest techniques promise to do more than soothe your mind after a tense Teams call. Change the way you breathe, say proponents of these methods, and you can hack your fitness by improving your oxygen efficiency, boosting circulation and delaying muscle fatigue. While techniques like nasal breathing and hypoxic training have been around for decades, there’s been an uptick in interest in recent years. Gyms including Melbourne Altitude Training, Altitude Performance Centre (also in Melbourne), Air Locker (NSW and soon QLD and VIC) and Sydney’s Peak Fitness all offer workouts designed to replicate the experience of training at altitude. A growing body of research into the influence of breath on everything from your concentration to your sleep is also breathing new life into the movement. So, can something as simple as the way you breathe really boost your burpee PB? And, for your average amateur athlete, is it actually worth it?
Among those hoping to bring such techniques to the spinning, squatting public is PT Georgie Lawlor. She was struggling with shoulder and neck pain during her runs, but after picking up a copy of The Oxygen Advantage, by hypoxic training pioneer Patrick McKeown, she suspected her breathing patterns might be to blame. It was a realisation that changed her approach to exercise entirely. “It made me see that the way I was breathing before – taking these big gasps of air – was dysfunctional,” she says. “I was really working against my body.” She started breathing nasally during her runs and she’s since taken her training one step further, by throwing breath-hold exercises into her routine, too. She credits both techniques with slashing five minutes off her 5k time, and she now has her sights set on a triathlon. “It’s like my body, mind and breath are working as a team,” she adds.
So, how do nasal breathing and breath-holding work? Breath-holding stems from the same school of thought as hypoxic training, in which oxygen is limited to mimic high-altitude conditions. Professor John Dickinson, a respiratory physiologist who helps athletes with dysfunctional breathing, explains: “Hypoxic training is carried out in an environment relatively low in oxygen, meaning that less is available to both the lungs and working muscles. This stresses the production of red blood cells, as well as the aerobic enzymes and mitochondria in the working muscles.” The result? “Athletes have a higher red blood cell mass that allows them to transport more oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and therefore produce more energy.” The same is said to apply to breath-holding. Nasal breathing, meanwhile, is about the flow rate. “It promotes a slower filling of the lungs,’ says Dickinson. “This enables athletes to better activate their diaphragm, deliver oxygen to the blood and achieve an efficient deep breath. In turn, taking fewer breaths frees up energy for the rest of your body to use during exercise.”
That’s the theory at least, and there’s some promising data on both techniques. A 2018 study, by Colorado State University Pueblo, on runners found a 22 per cent decrease in breath frequency when they were breathing nasally, compared with when they were breathing through their mouths– a decrease that had no bearing on their oxygen consumption. This means their breathing was just as effective, while requiring less effort. Similarly, a 2020 review from the same university analysed studies on nasal breathing in moderate exercise and concluded that the technique puts less strain on, and could even strengthen, respiratory systems. As for breath-holding, a 2019 study in Biology of Sport on cyclists found that the technique could increase the heart’s blood-pumping abilities, suggesting that this type of training could indeed lead to cardiac improvements.
The percentage decrease in breath frequency of runners breathing nasally compared to mouth breathing
Some athletes have embraced hypoxic training, but it isn’t widely practised. Dickinson says the data isn’t strong enough to warrant incorporating the techniques into his own work, either. “Limiting oxygen supply by breath-holding may indeed provide short-term hypoxia and provide acute simulation of altitude,” he notes, adding that the method is very experimental and any lasting benefits would require daily exposure to a low-oxygen environment for several weeks. As with all altitude training, he points out – be that simulated in your body or taking place 2,000m above sea level – not everyone responds in the same way.
One technique he’s more optimistic about is called respiratory muscle training (RMT). “It’s like strength training for your breathing muscles,” says James Manifield, a PhD researcher at Northumbria University in the UK. In the same way that adding weight to a curl will build your biceps, adding resistance to a breath will strengthen your diaphragm. A portable device, which looks a bit like an inhaler, is used to force the inward breath through an adjustable orifice. This pressure calls upon the diaphragm to maintain a regular breathing pattern. “By breathing through resistance, you can increase the thickness of your diaphragm and make it stronger, and this can translate into improvements in exercise performance,” adds Manifield.
Indeed, a 2014 study by Italy’s University of Ferrara, found that runners who engaged in respiratory conditioning alongside their training saw greater improvements to their speed and endurance than those who didn’t receive RMT. Earlier studies have found that RMT increases exercise capacity by up to 23 per cent in healthy adults; another saw improvements of up to 5 per cent
in cyclists’ timed performances – all of which could amount to seconds shaved off your PB.
Beyond adopting a new technique, marathon runners and park plodders alike can expect to see an improvement by brushing up on the breathing basics. Shallow breathing, over-breathing and mouth-breathing can restrict movement of the ribcage and create a build-up of tension in the upper body and tightness in the chest. While this may not hinder you when you’re sitting at your desk, it’s a different story when you work out. The biggest mistake Dickinson sees is when athletes want to maintain – or pick up – speed. “When you’re working harder, you don’t tell your heart to beat faster. It just knows that it needs to,” he says, adding that the same is true of your breathing. He explains that your body is wired with neurons called chemoreceptors, which tell your muscles when they need to breathe more. What if you tried to override that by, say, taking some big mouth breaths when you’re about to run up a hill? “That’s going to limit where your ribcage can move, and your breathing becomes more effortful.” Over-breathing can also trigger your respiratory metaboreflex, which is a survival mechanism that monitors how well your breathing muscles are working. If the muscles around your chest – your diaphragm, abdominal and intercostal muscles – start to fatigue, your cells will send an involuntary signal for your body to redirect blood flow from your other muscles to this area in order to keep your lungs pumping. Cue jelly legs.
So, how should you be breathing during an intense workout? “If you’re in a HIIT session and you’ve got that 30 seconds or a minute’s rest, that’s the time to focus on getting those deeper nasal breaths,” says Dickinson, which will encourage your natural breathing pattern. To really master this, he recommends a technique that he uses with his athletes – initiating a breath with a sideways movement, using a resistance band around their lower chests. “As you breathe in, hold a good posture and initiate the breath by moving your ribcage into the band,” he says. “If you focus on a sideways movement and just keep expanding, you’ll promote the initiation of the breath from the lower ribcage – rather than with a shoulder movement, or jerking the chest upwards.” You can then incorporate this into warm-up stretches, yoga poses and, eventually, gentle exercise, until your body becomes fluent in its new breathing pattern. For a simple exercise, it can deliver significant results – and it’s a firm favourite among some athletes. Jane Carré, a sports physiotherapist, describes the improvements it can have on swimmers’ performance as “dramatic”. “Their efforts remain consistent from start to finish of training sessions,” she shares. “That translates into races, so the end of their race becomes the strongest part of the event. Now, athletes who didn’t cope well with high-intensity training before can compete at the highest level.”
As for those of us with more humble athletic ambitions? Both Manifield and Dickinson recommend basic breath pattern mastery, before moving on to respiratory muscle training. “Some people accept that the breathlessness they experience when exercising is just their norm, and that they’ve reached the limit they can push themselves to in their workouts,” says Dickinson. But committing to these techniques, he explains, could be impactful on your performance. However, those who are pregnant, or have cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure, should check with their GP before getting to work on their breath. “In some cases, it could be that you’re only breathing at 80 per cent of your capacity, so increasing that percentage by practising breathing exercises can have a huge impact on your fitness performance.” Dickinson adds. The results just might be breathtaking.
Breath pattern training
What is it? “Exercises that focus on the coordination of your diaphragm and ribcage to promote deeper breaths and reduce the overall number taken,” according to Dickinson.
Who’s it for? Anyone wanting to up their training intensity.
How does it work? Breathing efficiently will leave you with more energy for your muscles to use during exercise.
What is it? A fusion of nasal breathing and breath-holding. Air is filtered via your nostrils, and nasal breathing enhances diaphragm engagement and ribcage expansion. Plus, holding your inhales composes your breathing.
Who’s it for? Anyone in need of a do-anywhere anxiety antidote.
How does it work?You breathe through your nose only, then hold until you feel the urge to breathe.
Respiratory muscle training
What is it? “A form of inspiratory breathwork that strengthens the breathing muscles by incorporating resistance,” Manifield explains.
Who’s it for? Those who want to up their fitness.
How does it work? An inhaler-like device is used to provide resistance as you breathe in for one to two seconds.
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