Breathing is the very essence of the wheel of life. Breathe in, breathe out – it keeps us alive.
It’s something healthy people take for granted as the body does it on autopilot.
You breathe naturally through the nose, and when it is stuffed, the mouth takes over.
Once the respiratory system is no longer capable of taking in air, it’s time to bid farewell to earth.
When it comes to exercise, the art of inhaling and exhaling may be a little more complicated than we think.
To get optimum results from your workout, how should you breathe?
It’s a question constantly posed to fitness professionals because improper breathing can impair sporting performance.
Engaging in any form of aerobic or cardiovascular endurance activity requires the use of oxygen.
The harder you work, the more oxygen is required for your body to sustain the activity.
And the more efficiently you can deliver the oxygen to your muscles, the harder and more efficiently you can work, which leads to better results.
The moment you’re unable to provide adequate oxygen to the muscles, they tire and slow down. Hence, proper breathing is important.
While there have been some studies comparing nasal and oral breathing during exercise, the results are still inconclusive.
Because you cannot take in as much air through your nose as your mouth, many people instinctively breathe through their mouths during exercise.
There is really no correct method or golden rule to breathing. It depends on the sports you are participating in and what feels comfortable.
More importantly, your breathing should not be laboured at any time.
For example, many runners find it most comfortable to take one breath for every two foot strikes, says Alison McConnell, a breathing expert and author of Breathe Strong Perform Better.
This means taking two steps (one left, one right) while breathing in and two steps while breathing out – also known as the 2:2 rhythm.
When I run, I find it easiest to inhale through the mouth and exhale through the nose. Breathing in and out through the mouth can leave your throat dry and irritated.
Increasing core engagement
Anyone who lifts weights regularly would know that they should exhale on the exertion phase (when you have to fight gravity and put in effort) and inhale on the non-effort phase.
Let’s use a bicep curl as an example. You should exhale as you raise the weights to curl, then inhale as you’re lowering.
For a push-up, inhale as you lower your body to the floor, and exhale when you press yourself up.
Contracting the respiratory muscles will help brace the load for heavier weights, while maintaining lumbar stability.
When you exhale and squeeze the air out, you also increase core engagement, and in strength training, a tight core equals more power and more stability.
Keeping your core engaged throughout any workout is also an excellent way to tone the abdominal muscles.
The opposite should apply during the exertion phase when you are doing plyometrics or jumps.
You should inhale preferably through the nose when you jump and exhale through the mouth when you land.
The logic behind this is akin to a balloon. When a balloon is filled with air, it floats, and when air is let out, it drops to the ground.
An air-filled balloon bounces on the floor continuously before it comes to a halt.
Similarly, when the lungs are filled with oxygen, the body is lighter and enables you to jump higher.
When you hit the ground, you want to be landing in one piece and on stable footing.
You can experiment with this for yourself and note the difference.
For dancers, this breathing technique is handy when it comes to partnering work.
The lifter is able to toss his partner in the air effortlessly when she inhales on the take-off, while an exhale on the take-off would add weight and put a strain on the male lifter.
Swimmers, on the other hand, have to use the mouth to inhale and nose to exhale. There is no other way around it!
Breathing in through the mouth allows you to increase your lung capacity, which is one reason why swimming is recommended for those suffering from respiratory ailments such as asthma and bronchitis.
You would have probably heard of diaphragmatic breathing, but unless you perfect the art of using this method, it’s pointless to try it while exercising. Or you’ll only end up being confused and gasping for air!
Basically, your diaphragm is a muscle located between your thoracic cavity (chest) and abdominal cavity.
We all use this muscle when we are born, but somewhere along the growing years, we stop or don’t fully engage it, resulting in shorter, shallower breaths originating and ending in the chest area.
The simplest way to practice diaphragmatic breathing is by lying on the floor or bed, with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Use only your nose to breathe.
Breathe in slowly and notice which area is rising – the chest, the belly or both?
With diaphragmatic breathing, only the belly should rise and fall. Think about originating the breath deep within your belly, and stay mindful of this as you continue inhaling and exhaling.
Now, stand up and try it. Don’t give up if the chest rises – practice makes perfect.
Once you have practised and gotten the technique right, you’ll be breathing deeply enough to deliver sufficient oxygen to the muscles, which prevents them from becoming fatigued earlier.
Some experts believe driving your breath from the diaphragm can also help avoid the painful side stitches and abdominal cramps.
In yoga, regulating the breath is a means to controlling the mind. The yogis follow a rhythmic pattern of slow, deep breathing, usually through the nose.
The patterns strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and reduce cravings.
As desires and cravings lessen, the mind is set free and becomes a fit vehicle for concentration and meditation.
Slow breathing allows you to release tension and helps you move better through your full range of motion.
When breathing is fast and uneven, the body is usually in a tensed state, which restricts you from moving into deeper poses.
To breathe better at all times, quit smoking, correct your slouching posture, and keep allergies and asthma in check.
If you are just starting back on exercise or are an exercise novice, you may find that it’s difficult to control your breathing.
Don’t worry. The good news is that cardiovascular fitness improves quickly if you continue exercising regularly, and soon you will develop breathing patterns that are second nature to your activity.
Just don’t stop breathing!