IN AND OUT, in and out… breathing is a no-brainer, right? It just comes naturally without any conscious effort. But what if we told you that your breath could could be the key to a fitter new you? Because, in fact, you can train your breath just like you train your body, and it can send your results sky high. Boosted sports performance, a stronger heart and cardio system, reduced stress and anxiety.. The benefits of better breathing are endless for longevity.
Why your breath is so important
It may seem obvious, but understanding the ins and outs (sorry) will help you reap rewards. Under normal circumstances, breathing takes place without thinking, thanks to the medulla oblongata – the part of the brain that maintains automatic functions. However, you can initiate voluntary changes to your breathing pattern, using the brain’s cerebral cortex, which can override the auto system. This allows you to control how fast or how deeply you breathe, which can help to improve your performance in vigorous activities, such as sprints or heavy lifts.
Stress – either from exercise or external pressures – stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, which tightens your respiratory muscles. Your chest expansion becomes restricted and shallow, and you breathe more rapidly. This is an ineffective way to breathe, as only the upper parts of your chest are efficient at removing toxic carbon dioxide and absorbing oxygen.
How to use your breath effectively
Learning to use your breathing effectively can be well worth your while, particularly if you’re spending loads of time in the gym or if you’re under a lot of stress. Ready to give it a go? Follow these easy exercises, and you’ll soon be breathing your way to a better body and mind…
Breathe for… A CALMER BODY AND MIND
Had a long day or tough training session? Lie on your back and let yourself relax so your body feels heavy, as if you could almost sink into the floor. Then close your eyes and breathe nasally, taking long, slow breaths, fully inflating the lungs. Maintain a slow, comfortable rhythm and focus on listening to your breathing.
Be aware that nasal breathing will warm the air as it’s inhaled, so try to push this warmth down into your centre and feel your body temp gently rising from the inside out.
Breathe for… SUPER STRENGTH
With resistance training, the golden rule is to exhale on the effort. This will give extra dynamism to your movements, allowing you to perform at a higher level and get greater results. For example, during a squat, the hardest part of the movement is lifting up from the lowered position. So, inhale as you bend your knees, sit into the squat position, then actively blow out as you contract your thigh and bottom muscles to return to the standing position. This theory can be applied to any exercise – just remember to exhale as you lift the weight (or your own body weight) against gravity.
Boost your HEART
Breathe for… A CARDIO BOOST During cardio exercise, varying the timing of your breath can improve the performance of your lungs and allow your body to use oxygen more efficiently. If you’re going for a run, start with a 2:2 ratio – breathing in for two strides and out for two.
The aim is to build up to a 3:3 and then a 4:4 ratio. For swimming, count the number of breaths you take to complete one length of the pool, then challenge yourself to take fewer breaths on the next length. Cyclists should work on trying to increase the number of revolutions for each breath, particularly on uphill stretches.
Breathe for… BETTER STAMINA
To strengthen your respiratory muscles and boost your endurance, sit in a comfortable upright position with your mouth closed.
Breathe quickly in and out through your nose, at a rate of two to three breaths per second, for five minutes. To aid the process, picture a pump inflating a tyre. You should feel the effort at the base of your neck, in your chest and in your stomach muscles.
Breathe for… OVERALL WELLBEING
You can boost your nervous and digestive systems and even muster some extra courage with one easy exercise. With your mouth closed, inhale slowly through your nose. Close the glottis (your vocal cords and the space between them) by lifting the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth, and exhale, again through your nose, but this time focus on the noise and vibration of the breath. Keep going for about two minutes. will improve your concentration.
Breathe for… IMPROVED CONCENTRATION
Clearing your mind is as easy as inhaling and exhaling, thanks to a clever exercise you can do at your desk, in the gym, or any time you need to find your focus. First, choose an empowering word, such as ‘succeed’, overcome’ or ‘achieve. Take a deep breath in and, on the exhale, silently say the word to yourself and make it last the whole length of the breath.
If other thoughts start to drift in and out of your head, let them creep in, but don’t let them take over, then slowly return your focus to repeating your chosen word to yourself.
Lungs we love
These professionals know a thing or two about breath control…
Anna Netrebko This Russian operatic beauty has been hailed as ‘Audrey Hepburn with a voice. Since debuting 10 years ago, she has won hordes of fans with her incredible soprano voice.
Herbert Nitsch The Austrian freediver’s world record 214m freedive has landed him the title of deepest man on Earth. But leave it to the experts, as he’s still recovering from a near-fatal diving accident in 2012.
Athletes who proved the power of breath
In 2011, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner the Austrian alpinist became the first woman to take on all 14 of the world’s 8,000m peaks without the assistance of extra oxygen or high-altitude porters.
DID YOU KNOW? We automatically change sides in our sleep about every half an hour, and this is mostly due to the balancing of the breath through each of our nostrils.
About the authors
This article was penned by Dean Hodgkin, with additional words by Rikki Hodge.
Dean Hodgkin BSc, PEA Cert Fitness Expert, Speaker, Educator and Writer. Dean is a truly international fitness ambassador, having appeared at fitness events in 36 countries over the last 30 years, Dean is renowned for offering insightful and thought-provoking talks plus a wide range of themed masterclasses and workshops. Notably, he appeared at the UK Active Uprising event talking about the boutique fitness sector, was on the judging panel for the Elevate Innovation Awards in addition to hosting the Retention Convention, National Fitness Awards and the International Fitness Showcase Gala Dinner.