Breathing seems like a simple thing: Inhale, exhale, repeat. That may be true if you are sitting down watching television, but it isn’t true if you’re an athlete, not even if you’re merely doing something athletic. If you’re active, the secret to success is to work on your breathing.
Many athletes think that practicing breathing is just for those who follow a spiritual discipline. But winning a competition — or even biking up a hill faster than the friends you’re riding with — depends on the amount of oxygen you can take in. Oxygen intake varies, depending on how you breathe.
Champion marathoner Alberto Salazar summed it up when he said: “The less oxygen you have, for whatever reason, the more you have to rely on stored blood sugars, and eventually you run out of them.”
Unless there is deliberate concentration and a repeated practice of the depth and pace of your breath, it will often change according to circumstances. For example, those who don’t pay constant attention to their breathing may feel the need for more oxygen during a sprint or a tough section of an endurance event. As a result, they start panting, taking short and gasping breaths.
This kind of breathing barely inflates the lungs. It also doesn’t take in much oxygen. You'll know it by a knot of pain in the diaphragm, when the gasping becomes uncontrollable, and suddenly bonk! You can’t go on.
Worse is when you actually forget to breathe. That happens even to elite athletes, especially in sprint events, when you have to start off and keep going at top speed. Athletes spring out of the start, paying attention only to the field or the course in front of them without realizing they haven’t taken a deep breath for three or more seconds. By that time, they are already in oxygen deficit. Their energy drops off a cliff; they may need 40 or more seconds just to catch up.
Soccer and hockey players are especially prone to the problem of not breathing properly. Instead of practicing technique when playing your sport, do a session where you practice your breathing instead.
First, before starting your activity, stand still for several minutes while taking deep, steady breaths. This will also help calm your mind so the action to follow doesn’t get distracting. Choose a comfortable cadence that allows you to take in a good amount of air, filling your lungs. These are relaxed breaths that may be impossible to maintain during strenuous activity. But the goal is to get accustomed to the feeling of your lungs inflating, so you never start the energy-ending sequence of airless panting.
Two rules to remember: Breathe through your nose and mouth at the same time, and never blow out more air than you are taking in. The biggest athletic breathing mistake is forcefully pushing out used air while not taking in a similar amount.
Think of it as a kind of muscle memory. Athletes learn physical technique by practicing the moves over and over again, learning muscle patterns so they don’t panic and make mistakes. It’s the same thing with breathing. Sync your breathing so you inhale and exhale the same amount, taking in what you need to keep going. Find a comfortable pace for your breathing, even if you have to use a count to keep that pace.
Never allow panic to affect your breathing. This often happens to non-elites when they see or hear a competitor catching up to or passing them. Panic makes them breathe faster and shallower. Instead of increasing their energy so they can immediately push harder and catch up, their out-of-sync and shallow breaths make less oxygen available, and they fall even further behind.
Practice your breathing pace while doing your sport, but also create practice sessions with other sports. Run sprints while concentrating on how you’re breathing. Ride a bike up a steep hill and learn how to breathe so you don’t allow your breathing to get out of sync.
You may work out and train so that your muscles are in perfect shape for your game, but only if you also work on your breathing will you win that medal, trophy or spot on the podium.
Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly, which offers the latest training, diet and athletic information.