Inhale. Exhale. We normally don’t think about breathing – it’s automatic.

And when our body needs more oxygen than usual, e.g. during sporting activity, our breathing rate increases automatically too.

“It’s a vital process that takes place subconsciously,” says Barbara Nützel, an instructor at a school for health management in Saarbrücken, Germany.

In this way the body prevents itself from going into oxygen debt, which is a temporary oxygen shortage in body tissues resulting from intense exercise.

Our cells need oxygen to break down glucose and produce energy.

“Breathing is regulated by the autonomic nervous system and brainstem,” says Sylvain Laborde, a researcher in the performance psychology section of the Cologne-based German Sport University.

The brainstem respiratory network can adapt our breathing to external circumstances.

When we’re relaxed or asleep, we automatically tend to breathe deeply and evenly.

“Our body finetunes its oxygen supply,” she says.

“We have sensors – so-called chemoreceptors – that recognise whether we have sufficient oxygen, and not too much carbon dioxide, in our blood and adjust intake accordingly.”

But not all breathing is the same.

We can take air into our chest, or seemingly deep into our belly.

The latter is called diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing, belly breathing or deep breathing.

The diaphragm is a large, dome-shaped muscle at the base of the lungs.

When you breathe diaphragmatically, inhaling makes the diaphragm contract and move downward, which creates more space in your chest cavity and allows your lungs to expand.

When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes, moving upward in the chest cavity and forcing air out of your lungs.

We’re born knowing how to breathe diaphragmatically, says Nützel, but unlearn it as we grow older.

Stress is one reason our breathing becomes shallower.

“Chest breathing wastes energy,” Laborde says, “as it activates many muscles we don’t really need for breathing.”

Breathing the right way

Breathing this way during sporting activities reduces the amount of energy at our disposal.

Athletes would therefore do well to learn diaphragmatic breathing technique and practise it regularly.

It can bring their breathing rate down from 15-20 breaths per minute to six, according to Laborde.

It can also be worthwhile to attend a yoga class, where emphasis is placed on diaphragmatic breathing training, says Nützel, a yoga instructor herself.

Athletes can breathe either through the nose or mouth.

“No matter what the sport,” Laborde says, “it’s best to breathe through your nose because the air is then moister and warmer.”

This protects the respiratory passages from drying out and cooling down.

It also protects them from dirt, Nützel says, since “the nose acts as a natural filter for airborne particles”.

During intense athletic activity, however, it’s normal to breathe through the mouth to meet the body’s oxygen requirements.

“At high intensity, you need a lot of oxygen, so sometimes, you’ve got no choice,” says Laborde.

“If oxygen intake through the nose is too low, your performance suffers.”

Which breathing technique is best for a round of jogging or strength training at the gym then?

Nützel says: “Whatever sport you do, the point is to require as few breaths as possible.”

When we run, there’s no need to consciously adapt our breathing to our strides.

“It’s best to give your breathing free rein,” says Laborde, “because our body knows exactly how much air it needs.”

For strength sports such as weightlifting, on the other hand, a targeted breathing technique is useful.

“You should exhale as you work against gravity, and inhale again in the relaxed phase,” advises Nützel.

A well-known breathing technique during weightlifting is called the Valsalva manoeuvre.

“Athletes try to mobilise more strength by pressing air against their closed mouth and nasal passages,” notes Laborde, but adds that it makes little difference in their performance.

Practising yoga is a good way to increase your respiratory volume.

“You learn to breathe more deeply, and with a little training, you’ll need fewer breaths to reach the same volume,” says Nützel.

Breathing efficiently doesn’t only boost athletic performance by supplying the body with an optimal amount of oxygen.

“Conscious breathing strengthens the immune system as well,” remarks Nützel.

What’s more, she says, exhaling more slowly lowers blood pressure.

Your heart rate – and resting heart rate – decrease.

Breath training can also have positive psychological effects, such as stress reduction.

By breathing more mindfully and slowly on a daily basis, you not only enhance your performance capacity, but your quality of life too.

Laborde recommends integrating slow breathing into your evening routine as a relaxation technique.

“Over time, slow breathing is beneficial to health and advisable,” he says. – By Pauline Jürgens/dpa

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