[This is a guest post from Subash Mathi. Subash is a Level-1 Badminton coach and holds a certification with the National Institute of Sports in India. He is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Sports Biomechanics and Kinesiology and participating in Athletic Lab internship program.]

The manner in which you breathe has a lot to do with your athletic performance as well as your quality of life. Breathing powerfully affects every system in your body: cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, lymph, immune, digestive, and of course, respiratory.

Breathing properly can decrease stress and muscle tension, calm your nerves, sharpen your focus, minimize negative and distracting thoughts, reduce fatigue, and promote stamina. Unfortunately, proper breathing is often an overlooked component of athletic training.Evidence indicates that adopting a regular, long-term schedule of breathing practice could help improve the body’s ability to manage stress. Researchers have shown how performance anxiety can be split into separate components. The first is a mental, cognitive, component, represented by worry such as, “I am worried that I may not perform as well as I can.” The second component of performance anxiety is self-focused attention represented by: “I am conscious of every movement I make”, and a physiological anxiety component, represented by arousal (fast heart rate) and tension (feeling on edge).

The ability to respond positively to anxiety reflects the level of control the athlete feels they have over a given situation, and their own response, “I believe I have the resources to meet this challenge”. This perception of control is important, because it reflects whether athletes see the situation as a threat or a challenge. This might ultimately change the way the athlete performs.

The most obvious benefit is the immediate effect upon the athlete’s physiology. If you feel yourself becoming stressed, you will notice how your heart rate increases and your breathing becomes more shallow and sporadic. Concentrating on your breathing and aiming to slow it down will reduce your heart rate and make you feel more calm and in control. This type of breathing allows us to “hijack” the body’s natural blood pressure regulation system and to increase our Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is the varying interval of our heart rate, where an increase is reflective of a greater capacity to deal with stress.This is because our heart is required to adapt appropriately and quickly to environmental demands from a state of rest to a “fight or flight” response in order to drive other physiological systems such as the delivery of oxygen to the muscles. If your heart rate can go from slow to fast and back again quickly, you are more adaptable to the demands you may face, moment by moment.

The benefits of HRV biofeedback are not reserved for elite athletes. Modern life is stressful for everyone, with many sources of stress at work and home. Evidence indicates that adopting a regular, long-term schedule of breathing practice at around six breaths per minute for 10 minutes every day could help improve the body’s ability to manage stress.

Breathing Techniques For Athletic Performance

The science of breathing stands on ancient foundations. Breathing exercises, or the focus on slow, regular, and sometimes deep breathing, are helpful to manage stress and improve health. We are going to focus on the Relaxing Breath and why it is a great way to end a training session.The principles of breathing come from ancient yogic breathing techniques known as Pranayama. Yoga breathing has been scientifically shown to decrease stress, lower heart rate and blood pressure, improve immunity, and to help us sleep.“Practicing a regular, mindful breathing exercise can be calming and energizing and can even help with stress-related health problems ranging from panic attacks to digestive disorders.” – Andrew Weil, M.D.
Using an ancient yogic technique called pranayama,practitioners are able to gain control over their breathing. The numbers should be an easy give away: 4-7-8- refer to the counts when breathing in, holding your breath, and exhaling:

  • Start by sitting up straight in a comfortable position
  • Place the tip of your tongue on the ridge of your gums, just behind your upper front teeth
  • Expand your diaphragm and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of 4 seconds
  • Hold your breath for another count of 7 seconds
  • Open your mouth slightly, keeping your tongue in place, and exhale for 8 counts
  • Repeat this cycle 4 times

Slow, rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing provides a feeling of relaxed energy. During times of stress, such as before the start of a race, pay attention to any tension in your shoulders, neck, or jaw. Try to relax these areas and visualize your breath flowing into and out of the deepest part of your lungs. This exercise is subtle when you first try it, but gains in power with repetition and practice. Do it at least twice a day. You cannot do it too frequently; however, it is not recommended too do more than four breaths at one time for the first month of practice. Later, if you wish, you can extend it to eight breaths. If you feel a little lightheaded when you first breathe this way, do not be concerned; it will pass.It’s promised to be powerful if used regularly over time. The idea behind these scheduled breathing sessions; however, is to retrain your entire way of breathing. With enough practice, you should begin breathing more deeply without thinking about it.

How Olympians Use their Lungs

Oxygen powers performance. This is true for all levels of athletes. Each of us can exercise to increase the volume of our lungs. The more we expand our lung capacity, oxygen moves through our system more efficiently. Elite athletes, unsurprisingly, rely on their breath for endurance and energy. It is the engine that determines the level of performance muscles will deliver. Much like one needs to know the possible maximum strength expected from a battery, coaches and athletes too must know their potential. Training and genetics work in sync while reaching this maximum potential. Just as there are limits to what an AA battery can power, there are limitations to one’s fitness potential.The maximum volume of oxygen one can consume is referred to as VO2 Max. The more oxygen an athlete can inhale, the better the performance potential. While there are other factors that determine VO2 Max or the training thereof, such as genetics, age, and fitness baseline, training can generally increase this maximum to a certain level. The more oxygen athletes can use during performance, the more energy they can put out. However, this is only one half of the equation. The second part is the efficiency with which the athlete uses this oxygen. Let’s equate VO2 to a tool belt. While two people might have the same tools in their tool belt (same VO2 max), it is their skills and ability to use these that will eventually determine the result.

Benefits

  • This breathing exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system
  • Switches autonomous nervous system (ANS) states from sympathetic (fight or flight) to parasympathetic (rest and digest). Post-exercise, this can help increase recovery.
  • Lowering cortisol (stress hormone). Post-training this can also help switch the body into a state of recovery
  • Increases the antioxidant defense status in athletes after exhaustive exercise
  • Lower stress-related markers of inflammation
  • Controlling your breath calms your monkey brain
  • Breathing regulates blood pressure and heart rate

Why is it Important for Athletes Post Training

After your workout or competition, you need to be able to switch from sympathetic (energy expenditure) to parasympathetic (energy production) in order to improve training adaptation and recovery. Coaches and trainers often look at resting heart rate (RHR), heart rate variability (HRV), and other physiological measures, as recovery from a systemic perspective includes all systems of the body. Recovery of the muscular, nervous, and immune systems, in particular, are critical components in helping athletes reach their goals. Athletes who are injured, overtrained, or have a compromised immune system will not be able to function or perform at an optimal level.

Here are proven benefits athletes can receive from using diaphragmatic breathing:

  • Enhanced motor coordination (i.e., hand-eye coordination, speed, timing)
  • Improved ability to regulate emotions (i.e., composure)
  • Increased focus and concentration (i.e., hearing the snap count)
  • Faster information processing (i.e., decision making, problem-solving, improvisation, discrimination)

One of the functions of mind-body medicine is to tap into the body’s natural relaxation response — in order to promote slower breathing, improve blood pressure, reduce stress and enhance wellness. While simply breathing deeply in and out can work, it can be more helpful to have a structured approach that gives you something to really concentrate on and take your mind off the stress at hand.

Related Research

A study published in the January 2014 Journal of Diagnostic Research linked both fast and slow types of pranayama to reduced stress and improved cognition, including attention, retention as well as speed in tasks that merge vision and physical action, such as playing sports.

If you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed, one of the best things you can do is take control of your breath. It sends a signal to the brain that you’re not in danger, and you’ll start to feel physically calmer almost immediately. Results demonstrate that relaxation induced by diaphragmatic breathing increases the antioxidant defense status in athletes after exhaustive exercise. These effects correlate with the concomitant decrease in cortisol and the increase in melatonin. The consequence is a lower level of oxidative stress, which suggests that appropriate diaphragmatic breathing could protect athletes from long-term adverse effects of free radicals.

References:

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress, Martarelli.D, Et Al, 2011.
  2. Immediate Effect of slow pace bhastrika pranayama on blood pressure and heart rate, Pramanik.T, Et Al, 2009.
  3. Positive Effects of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Physiological Stress Reactivity in Varsity Athletes, Melissa G. Hunt, Et Al, 2018