Sports Training & Conditioning Zone!

Performance Breathing: A Primer


If there were a movement pattern you did twenty-three thousand times a day, you no doubt would take measures to improve it. But how often do you consider your breathing? Most athletes have such dysfunctional breathing patterns that it limits their performance, increases potential for injury, and often has them all worked up psychologically.

How to Breathe

Many people use only a small percentage of the body's ability to draw oxygenated air into their lungs because they tend to breathe only with the upper part of their torso (chest breathing), instead of deep breathing, which starts at the pelvic floor and works up through the base of the rib cage.

Breathing should occur from the action of the diaphragm, the most efficient breathing muscle, and not the accessory muscles of the chest and neck. In general, the rib cage should expand in a 3-D pattern, top to bottom, back to front, and to the sides, acting as a basket that cradles your lungs, not a restricting cage.

By changing the way you breathe, you will improve your posture and the muscular tone and tissue quality of some of the areas where you likely carry a lot of tension, such as your shoulders, upper back, chest, and neck.

High performers take advantage of a deep inhalation and a powerful exhalation. Most people don't have the ability to do either well due to poor posture, which undermines speed, power, endurance, and recovery, as well as cognitive function.

Test Your Breathing

Want to see how well you breathe? Try the following test. Place one hand on your chest and one below your ribs on your stomach. Breathe in deeply. If you're at rest, the hand on your chest should move just a little or not at all; the hand on your stomach should move out as you breathe in. This means your diaphragm is moving down and outward, sucking air into your chest. Your upper chest muscles around your ribs and below your neck are strong and tight, so moving them to breathe will zap your energy. You can also try this test during an intense workout, but in this situation, you would want to see a full 3-D movement of the entire rib cage.

Practicing diaphragm breathing is easy. Breathe out all the way. While holding your empty lungs, count out loud. "One, two, three, four," until your voice fades because there is no air. Hold on as long as you can until your body automatically forces your lungs open. You will see your stomach pop out as the phrenic nerve forces the diaphragm to move down and suck air in. Do this a few times and you will feel the difference, powering your breathing and saving you energy.

To continue the conversation about performance breathing and other topics, join the new EXOS education community group on Facebook.

(August 2015)