We all have our post-workout rituals to optimize muscle recovery — like stretching, foam rolling or eating protein, to name a few.
But there's one thing you're probably not doing that may help your body recharge once you've finished flexing: a few minutes of focused breathing.
Here, kinesiologist and strength and conditioning specialist Shawn M. Arent, PhD, CSCS*D, discusses how deep breathing affects your body and how it can be a useful tool to employ after a strenuous sweat session.
How Does Deep Breathing Affect Your Body?
Focused, controlled breathing patterns can down-regulate your autonomic nervous system (ANS). In other words, breathing helps "calm" the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the ANS responsible for your fight or flight response) and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the part of the ANS responsible for your rest and digest state), says Arent, also the chair of the department of exercise science and director of the Sport Science Lab at the University of South Carolina.
That means breathing can play a pivotal role in stress management. "Under situations of psychological stress or when someone needs to remain calm but focused, controlled breathing can be an incredibly useful tool," he says.
In fact, scientific data has shown that breathing at certain frequencies can affect heart rate variability (HRV), which is an important indicator of sympathetic and parasympathetic activation, Arent says.
HRV — which measures the variation in time between each heartbeat — is controlled by the ANS, and when it's too low, this may signal an imbalance of stress in the body, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
What About Deep Breathing After a Workout?
As it can be physically demanding, exercise can initiate a stress response in your body and release hormones like epinephrine (i.e., adrenaline) that increase your heart rate, blood pressure and energy supplies (think: prepares you for fight or flight).
As we know, breathing can down-regulate your system's state of stress, so can it also be valuable to help your body recover from the stress it endured during your workout?
Possibly, but "there isn't a lot of good science on down-regulation breathing after a workout" to determine one way or another, Arent says. Still, he suspects that breathing's effect on improving or speeding up recovery would likely be small.
That's because while exercise induces stress hormones, "the reality is that epinephrine has a very rapid clearance after a workout," Arent says, meaning, it'll flush out of your system fast. So, in this case, breathing probably won't make much of a difference when it comes to slashing the stress response.
But that doesn't mean breathing can't be beneficial post-workout. A focused breathing strategy can help you be present in the moment, re-center and improve your physiological awareness (i.e., gain some degree of control over an often-involuntary process), Arent says.
What's more, down-regulation breathing may be particularly effective after exercise if you train late in the evening, because high-intensity workouts too close to bedtime may disrupt sleep, Arent explains. "Restoring autonomic balance more quickly may be more useful here than it would be, for example, earlier in the day," he says.
But Arent stresses this is all fairly speculative because the research remains scant.
How to Breathe After a Workout
Though there's currently a lack of data on down-regulation breathing after exercise, taking a few minutes to focus on your breath post-sweat session is still a good practice. "If it makes someone feel better, then do it," Arent says.
While three to five minutes of any controlled breathing strategy will serve you well, nasal breathing and box breathing are good options.
Though a quiet, dim place is the perfect environment for post-exercise breathing, both types of breathwork can be performed anywhere, like the locker room or the shower, if you're strapped for time.
This type of breathing is exactly what it sounds like: breathing through your nose. Nasal breathing increases oxygen transport throughout your body, enables your diaphragm (your breathing muscle) to function properly and activates the calming parasympathetic nervous system, according to the American Institute of Stress.
One form of nasal breathing often practiced in yoga, called alternate nostril breathing, has some especially positive perks. Case in point: A January-April 2018 study in the International Journal of Yoga linked alternate nostril breathing for 30 minutes a day over a period of 12 weeks to lower perceived stress levels and improvements in heart rate and blood pressure.
While nasal breathing can be helpful for many people, for some folks — who may have difficulty breathing through their nose due to issues like congestion, nasal drip or a deviated septum — it can be counterproductive (or even stress-inducing), Arent says.
So, be sure to take these factors into account when you attempt nasal breathing. And if the practice produces more stress than relaxation, simply stop and select an alternative breathing strategy.
How to Do Nasal Breathing
- Clear your nasal passages of any potential blockages by gently blowing your nose.
- Sit comfortably on a chair or the ground with your spine straight.
- Close your mouth. Avoid clenching your teeth or tightening your jaw.
- Touch the tips of your index and middle fingers of your left hand to your forehead, between your eyes.
- Close your eyes.
- Use your thumb to close your left nostril and exhale through your right nostril.
- Inhale deeply through your right nostril.
- Use your ring finger to close off your right nostril.
- Release your thumb and exhale through your left nostril.
- Inhale deeply through your left nostril and repeat this process for several minutes.
"Box breathing, also often referred to as combat breathing [because it's practiced by the Navy SEALs], can be fairly easy to achieve and is certainly a good option," Arent says.
A type of yogic deep breathing, box breathing involves breathing while you slowly count to four for a total of four times. Many find it useful to visualize this 4-4-4-4 breathing pattern like a square box with four even sides (hence the name).
Like nasal breathing, box breathing can decrease levels of the hormone cortisol in your body and help lower blood pressure, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
How to Do Box Breathing
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose as you count slowly in your head to four. Let the air fill your lungs and your belly.
- Pause, holding your breath for another slow count of four.
- Exhale through your mouth for the same slow count of four, expelling the air from your lungs and abdomen.
- Pause again. Hold your breath for the same slow count of four before repeating this process.