November 14, 2022

Science of Breath Work: Breathing for Athletes

Dion von Moltke


Science of Breath Work: Breathing for Athletes Image

Are you breathing correctly? Did you know that most people do not? You were born with the innate ability to breathe air into your lungs. It seems like a simple and easy task to do. Your brain automatically signals your body to breathe. But, without training, you don’t unlock the ability to use the breath to get the most out of your body and mind.

Oxygen is the most important nutrient for human life. So, we should spend time exploring how beneficial proper breathing can be for our bodies. Your ability to breathe is unique in that you can control it. It is an automatic process. But, when you think about it, your brain can take over and change your breathing patterns.

Breathing for Athletic Performance

Breathing is a key component of an athlete’s health and in their performance. Proper breathing gives athletes more muscular endurance. Research indicates that when athletes incorporate breathwork into their routine, they are better able to control their heart rate and muscle recovery over time.

If you are the type of athlete that gets anxious or nervous before a game, it could be helpful to try and incorporate a breathing exercise into your training routine. Breathing can help reset your mind and get you focused. It can help you refocus during stressful times while in the game and it can help boost your muscular performance if you are breathing correctly. In addition, breathing can help your body recover faster post-performance.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Your diaphragm is the most efficient muscle in your body for breathing. The abdominal muscles help move the belly up and down and give you more power to fill and empty your lungs. Diaphragmatic breathing helps you to use your diaphragm properly when breathing, it decreases the work of breathing by slowing your breathing rate, you use less energy to breathe, and it decreases oxygen demand.

Diaphragmatic breathing allows you to use your lungs at full capacity, versus when you breathe normally. Try these simple steps to start practicing diaphragmatic breathing.

  1. Lie on your back. Bend your knees and support your head.
  2. Place one hand on your chest and one hand below your rib cage.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach moves, raising your hand. You want the hand on your chest to remain as still as possible.
  4. Tighten your stomach muscles as you exhale through pursed lips.

Breathing Techniques: Pre-Game

Anxiety before a game or match is normal and is also healthy for athletes. It can pump you up for the game, get you to focus, and give you a competitive edge. Anxiety can backfire if it takes over an athlete’s perceived abilities. Athletes that learn how to manage those emotions are better able to make the most out of the moment.

Research indicates that different emotions generate different forms of breathing. When you are happy and joyful, your breathing is regular, deep, and slow. When you are angry or anxious, your breath will be short, fast, irregular, and shallow. When you control your breathing patterns associated with certain emotions, you can shift your body into those emotions.

Anxious behaviors can manifest themselves as thoughts of fear, indecision, and lack of concentration or focus. It increases your blood pressure, creates muscular tension, and a pounding heart.

When you inhale, your heart rate speeds up and when you exhale, your heart rate slows down. If you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to control your breathing. When you control your breath, you send a signal to your brain that you are not in danger and your body will calm down almost immediately.

In a 2018 study on 76 varsity athletes, the athletes that used a diaphragmatic breathing technique showed greater levels of relaxation. Findings indicated that diaphragmatic breathing allowed the athletes to better manage stress during the games and lead to

  • enhanced motor coordination
  • improved emotional regulations
  • increased concentration and focus
  • faster information processing, decision-making skills, and problem-solving abilities

The following breathing techniques can help calm your nerves and get you in the zone pre-game.

Box Breath

how to box breathe for athletes

A great breathing technique for pre-game anxiety or jitters is called box breathing. It has four equal parts inhale, hold, exhale, and hold. Start with two seconds each and slowly increase the time as you become more comfortable with the technique.

  1. Breathe in for two seconds
  2. Hold the inhale for two seconds
  3. Exhale for two seconds
  4. Hold the exhale for two seconds.

When it is time for the game to start. If you find your nerves coming back during play, extend the length of your exhales. Refocus on your breathing to get your head back into the game.

In-Game Breathing

Many people ignore their breathing while working out or exercising. The difficulties many people experience during rigorous exercise can improve with proper breathing.

Marta Montenegro, professor of exercise science, says “the more efficiently you can deliver oxygen to your muscles, the harder and more efficiently you can work, which leads to better results”.

Consistent breathing during exercises allows more nitric oxide into your body. This increases the amount of oxygenated blood that flows to your heart and allows your heart to work more efficiently.

Consistent breathing does not mean slow breathing. A strong breathing rate while you are doing an endurance workout is inhaling for 2-3 seconds and exhaling for 2-3 seconds.

Many athletes learn from an early age that when they are out of breath, to put their hands behind their heads. A 2019 study discovered that athletes recovered faster when they bent over with their hands on their knees. These athletes were able to draw more air into their lungs in this bent-over position than outstretched with their arms above their heads.

What happens if your anxiety or stress reappears while in the middle of the game? This is a common problem for athletes. Maybe it is a close game? Maybe you are battling an opponent that consistently challenges your mental clarity.

How can you refocus? Return to your breath! Using the box breathing method, extend the length of your exhales to help calm your nerves back down.

This is easier said than done while in a game. But, if you consistently practice box breathing outside of game time, it will be easier for you to return to the technique when you feel your heart begin to race or your mind begin to wander.

Post-Game Recovery Breathing

Practicing a regular breathing exercise helps the nervous system recover after physical workouts. In a 2011 study, sixteen athletes were monitored during an exhaustive workout session. Results indicated that the athletes who participated in diaphragmatic breathing had lower cortisol and increased melatonin levels. Diaphragmatic breathing helped to reduce their stress levels and return their heart rate to a relaxed state. Long-term effects of diaphragmatic breathing can lead to increased muscle recovery and help fight the effects of free radicals.

4-7-8 breathing

This technique is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system. It switches your autonomous nervous system from a “fight or flight” mode to a “rest and digest” mode. Post-exercise, this type of breathing can help increase recovery, lower your cortisol levels, and increase the antioxidant defense status.

  1. Start by sitting up in a comfortable, straight position.
  2. Place the tip of our tongue on the ridge of your gums, behind your upper front teeth.
  3. Slowly inhale through your nose for a count of 4. Expand your diaphragm.
  4. Hold your breath for a count of 7.
  5. Keep your tongue in place, slightly open your mouth, and exhale for a count of 8.
  6. Repeat 4 times.

When you complete a training session or workout, you need to switch your body from energy expenditure (sympathetic) to energy production (parasympathetic). Recovery of the nervous, muscular, and immune systems are key factors in assisting athletes in reaching their goals. Athletes cannot perform at optimal levels when they are overtrained, injured, or have compromised immune systems.

Practice using these various breathing techniques with your training. Do not wait until game day to implement the breathwork. You want to be able to sit down and almost immediately put your body into a state of relaxation. The longer you practice, the more efficient your breathing will become and the better your body will adjust to stressful situations.

Learn More With Blaze!

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About the coach

Dion von Moltke

Daytona 24 Hour Winner

Car Racing

I've spent 20 years of my life in this sport that we all love so much. During that time I was fortunate enough to have a 10 year professional career where I won the Rolex at Daytona 24 hour, the Sebring 12 Hour (twice), and became an official driver for Audi. After retiring from professional racing I became a co-founder at Blayze. My goal with building this platform is to make it more affordable, accessible, and convenient to learn personally from the best coaches in the world!

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