Your lungs are one of the most important organs for exercise because the human “body uses more oxygen and produces more carbon dioxide” when it’s in motion, according to Breathe Journal. To cope with the demand put on your lungs, your breathing has to increase from 15 times each minute when resting, on average, to up to 40 to 60 times per minute during exercise.
It may be obvious, then, that improper breathing can affect the performance and outcome of a workout and can lead to physical ramifications too. For example, shallow respiration doesn’t contract the diaphragm so the lungs can expand for an adequate intake of oxygen.
This insufficient technique moves the rib cage more than it should, suggests the National Academy of Sports Medicine, which can lead to pain and discomfort in the upper muscles, including chest and back, while weakening the muscles of the pelvic floor and lower back.
To get your breathing right, and avoid discomfort and poor performance, keep the following tips in mind during your next workout.
Make a conscious effort to not hold your breath
During regular daily functions, breathing is an involuntary function, but when you start to exercise, it often becomes reflexive to stifle your own breath instead. This habit restricts oxygen flow, which in turn strains your respiratory muscles, increasing heart rate, spiking blood pressure, and hindering arterial circulation, according to the Institute of Sport Science and Innovation.
In the short-term, holding your breath can lead to dizziness, faintness or impaired stamina. If it recurs whenever you exercise, the cardiovascular effects could be serious, so focus on breathing consistently and evenly during your workout. Start slow to find the rhythm, and then hold onto it as you increase speed or intensity.
Inhale deeply from the midline of your stomach
Breathing from the chest is common, but as Roger Cole, Yoga Journal contributor, explains, it’s also exhausting. Also called isolated breathing, when you breathe just into the chest, you overuse the muscles in your neck and upper body and underuse the diaphragm.
Yet, when working out at intense levels, you need those “accessory muscles,” explains Cole. “They kick in to supplement the diaphragm's action by moving the rib cage up and down more vigorously, helping to bring more air to the lungs.”
By breathing into your chest, you take away their ability to help as they need to. Cole continues, “Unlike the diaphragm, which is designed to work indefinitely, the accessory muscles tire more easily, and overusing them will eventually leave you feeling fatigued and anxious.”
The key is breathing into your diaphragm—this is also called diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, which is simply breathing in and out of your belly. Use this guide from Cleveland Health to practice.
Exhale through your nose instead of your mouth
Just as there is a preferable method for inhalation, there is an ideal approach for exhalation too, and it can also be counterintuitive to how you breathe during workouts. Exhaling from the mouth is often instinctual when we’re active. It seems like you can release more “hot air,” which feels good. However, choosing to exhale from the nose is actually more beneficial.
“The nose is built with a specific purpose—to support the respiratory system,” says Jae Berman, registered dietician and personal trainer. Berman explains that nasal breathing enables more oxygen to reach the active muscle tissues because it releases nitric acid.
The importance of this is simple: when you don’t secrete nitric acid—which is what happens when you breathe through your mouth—you accelerate muscle fatigue. Breathing through your nose may be the key to finishing your workout feeling stronger, or pushing even longer.
Practice a consistent breathing rhythm
In order to maintain effective breathing, you need to establish a strong mind-body connection; reminding yourself to breathe is just as much a mental response as a physical exertion. To make this easier, focus your attention on the rhythm of each breath to build consistency and repetition for your breathing during workouts.
Here are the breathing rhythms that are best for a few common workout types.
- Weight or resistance training: Exhale on the muscle contraction, then inhale on the release. In other words, exhale as you lift the weight or perform the action, then inhale as you lower the weight or return to the starting position.
- Running or cardio exercises: Avoid taking short, hurried breaths, which elevates your heart rate, increasing lactic acid in the muscles (muscle fatigue) and reducing your endurance. Time your breaths with each movement—if you’re a runner, inhale on a right foot strike, hold for 4 counts, then exhale on a left strike, to keep breaths long and consistent.
- Stretching or yoga sequences: Your breath should be controlled, deep and slow to promote mindfulness and ground yourself in each posture. Doing so boosts your flexibility and reinforces the musculoskeletal benefits of the stretch. Begin with a measured inhale, then exhale as you anchor the pose.
Get Your Breathing Right
If you’re breathing from your chest, holding your breath, or using an unusual breathing pattern, use these tips to get back on track. Your performance will benefit, thanks to greater endurance, and so will your body, with less discomfort and pain holding you back.
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