You know the feeling – your chest is tight, you’re working hard to suck air into your chest but you just can’t get enough in. Your breathing feels erratic, out of control, noisy even. You KNOW you are fitter than this but you can’t seem to find that next gear. Your heart rate is higher than it should be and the only way for you to keep going is to back off your pace. Is it asthma? Lack of training? Too much coffee?
Maybe; but it’s more likely how you’re breathing that is the problem– not only how you breathe when you’re training and racing but how you breathe at rest too.
Your mind and body follow your breathing pattern. If your breathing is shallow and out of control then your technique and movements will be jerky and panicked, and your mind all over the place. If your breathing is calm, and under control – even at the highest of physical intensity – your mind will be focussed and calm, your body movements fluid and you’ll perform to your potential.
Most athletes know to take “deep breaths” or “breathe into their belly” to calm themselves down or bring their breathing under control. This is an incredibly useful tool, however if you can only breathe into your belly for a few breaths and then revert to a shallow, upper chest pattern you are short-changing the powerful performance gains that your breathing can bring you.
What sort of gains? 4 weeks of focussed breathing retraining can increase peak power in competitive cyclists by 3.2% and improve 20km TT time by 1.5% (Vickery, Kilding & Nicholls; unpublished manuscript, 2008). Most of my athletes tell me they can drop their heart rate by 5-10 beats a minute, they feel calmer and more focused and can push harder, for longer in racing and training. Pretty impressive gains by just learning to breathe better!
Before you read any further check how you are breathing right now. Are you breathing through your mouth or your nose? Is your breathing shallow, restricted to your upper chest, or can you feel your belly moving with each breath? Is your breathing jerky or is it calm and rhythmical? Are your shoulders lifted? Your abs clenched? Sitting there now you should be breathing in and out through your nose, in a calm, rhythmical way, with your belly moving gently in and out with each breath. Your exhalation should be slightly longer than your inhalation, and there should be a gentle pause between breaths. If you’re not your breathing this way it might be causing some of the issues highlighted at the end of the article.
How you breathe at rest directly impacts how you breathe with exercise. Athletes who breathe poorly at rest are likely to be compromised in some way when they do sport. Without even considering the emotional, mental and physiological impacts of breathing inefficiently, if you breathe with your upper chest at rest then you simply don’t have space in your lungs to take the deeper breaths you need for exercise. You are setting yourself up for a less that optimal performance.
When you commence exercise with shallow breathing you quickly lose control of the breath. Most athletes worry about the inhalation, but putting emphasis on the inhalation, rather than the exhalation means you end up “breathe stacking” – you take one breath on top of the next and before you know it you feel like you can’t take a full breath.
“When in Doubt, Breathe Out!” is the best mantra to use here. Exhaling makes space for the next breath that you need to get into your lungs. This tip will get you out of trouble any day of the week!
To optimise your breathing as an athlete, and to ensure you are performing to your potential the most powerful thing you can do is to learn to breathe with your belly at rest. As with the rest of your training, learning how to do this takes time and practice. There are number of things that cause you to start breathing into your upper chest and the magic behind really fixing the problem lies in identifying and addressing these factors. However, here are a few quick tried and tested tips that will help you breathe powerfully with control during your sport.
Use the same mouth control as for the bike and focus on making the breath out longer than the breath in. For example breathe in for 2 steps, out for 3. Find a rhythm that suits you, just try to always have the exhalation as the longest part of your breath.
Keep your torso up and your shoulders relaxed.
Keep your shoulders relaxed and away from your ears – especially in TT position. Feel what happens to your breathing when you shrug your shoulders up to your ears. It doesn’t feel so easy does it!
As you breathe in feel your belly fall forward, as you breathe out it will come back up.
Keep your mouth only slightly open when you breathe in, and push the out through pursed lips. Think about blowing on a hot drink, rather than trying to fog up a window!
When done properly the bike leg becomes an awesome “rest” for your breathing and a great way to drop your heart rate to save yourself for the run.
Breathe out fully under water before you turn to take your breath. It’s amazing how many swimmers hold their breath when their face is in the water and then try to breathe out and in when their mouth is out of water. You don’t have time for this and you’ll end up in trouble!
During pool sessions breathe out hard when you are on the wall between sets. It may only be one or two breaths, but it’s like pushing the reset button on your breathing.
Learn to breathe with your belly, through your nose, so you breathe like this even when you aren’t thinking about it. This creates the efficient foundation for powerful breathing with sport.
Coming into T1 or T2 concentrate on breathing out hard and trying to slow your breathing down. It is easy to get caught up in the rush and panic of transition, which causes your heart rate to spike and you to make silly mistakes. But remember – your body and mind follows your breathing. Use your breathing powerfully through transition to keep your mind calm and focused on what you are doing, and your heart rate down.
Make sure you keep breathing when you are training your core strength. I see a lot of athletes who work their core hard but breath-hold when they do it!
Potential Consequences of Poor Breathing Mechanics
- Unusual shortness of breath
- Inspiratory stridor / wheeze
- Difficulty getting enough air into chest
- Noisy breathing
- Erratic breathing / breathing out of control
- Difficulty “catching breath” after an effort
- Sore throat post exercise
- Voice changes
- Unusually high heart rate (resting / exercise)
- Premature fatigue
- Unable to reach “top gear”
- Heavy legs
- Loss of power
- Slow recovery
- Regularly “hitting the wall” not explained by food / drink
Mental / Emotional
- Loss of focus & Mental Clarity
- “Busy Brain” / difficulty switching off
- Poor sleep
- Increased “Fright & Flight”
- Reactive rather than in “Flow”
- Inability to perform under pressure
- Anxiety / nerves become overwhelming
- Constantly “on edge”.
- Rushed / panicked transitions
Rachel is a High Performance Consultant, qualified Sports Physio (MHSc.) and has worked with elite and professional athletes with breathing-related issues for 18 years, including many of Australasia’s top triathletes.
- Sore / tight shoulders and neck
- Thoracic and Lumbar pain
- Chronic shoulder injuries
- Chest / ribcage pain
- Unable to reach next level of performance
- Loss of technique – loss of fluid stroke / excess bike movement