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Dear Coach: How is Breathing Related to Performance? 

Working on your breathing can unlock huge performance gains in your training and racing.

Examining how we breathe can offer a holistic picture of how every physiological system critical to our training is working and which ones are limiting our performance. The way you breathe uncovers information about your postural alignment, muscular stability, and nervous system. 

Oxygen is quite literally our vital life force. It is the most critical element responsible for keeping your body alive and moving. Cells require oxygen to break down nutrients and release energy in order to power vital organs. The respiratory system acts to bring oxygen into the bloodstream and remove carbon dioxide, the waste product created when you produce energy. Respiration also plays a vital role in combating heat and acidosis, two stressors from exercise that determine the outcome of your performance. This process is called metabolism and involves your cells, lungs, heart, and blood circulation. 

Although metabolism is a combination of several functions, it is summarized as the process through which our body breaks down nutrients (fats and carbohydrates) to release the energy they contain. The breakdown process of nutrients requires oxygen, and therefore even the shortest disruption in oxygen supply will immediately diminish our body’s ability to produce the energy it needs to keep our heart beating, our brain functioning, or our legs moving.

Endurance sports require continuous and prolonged oxygen consumption. Determining your oxygen transport limitation and training with the use of breathing exercises will propel your performance. Given that these activities need constant energy production to keep your muscles going for prolonged periods, maintaining an undisrupted oxygen supply is vital. The most frequent types of limitations are over-breathing or shallow breathing. In simple words, athletes often breathe faster than they should (hyperventilate) or breathe without using their full lung capacity. Both cases result in limiting the oxygen supply to the body. Therefore the amount of energy and movement muscles can exert. Shallow breathing can also cause your core body temperature to increase since exhalation is a crucial mechanism for expelling heat.

RELATED: Should You Breathe Through Your Mouth or Nose During Exercise?

In general, the higher the breathing frequency, the less core stability we have. Also, the lower the tidal volume, the more our posture is compromised due to less core pressure and the less oxygen we consume, leading to greater participation of anaerobic metabolism in the energy-generating process. More anaerobic metabolism subsequently leads to increased fatigue and a loss of motor control. 

Ventilation mechanics, a component of the metabolic analysis, can be used as a powerful tool to assess the myoskeletal stress that a particular position has on our body, even standing up. It also shows how it is used to quantify the onset of fatigue and the loss of proper posture control. 

Ensuring there is enough oxygen supply to your cells is critical as it determines the type of metabolism that takes place, namely aerobic or anaerobic. When all systems work effectively, there is enough oxygen delivery to your cells, allowing aerobic metabolism to be the dominant method for energy release. Aerobic metabolism is the process by which your cells use oxygen to break down nutrients. It’s energy-efficient and produces low heat levels. However, when a disruption occurs at any part of the oxygen chain, cells will gradually switch to anaerobic (means without air and alludes to the absence of oxygen) metabolism due to a lower than needed oxygen supply. Anaerobic metabolism does not require oxygen for the release of energy but produces high amounts of heat. Heat, in turn, disrupts ATP turnover and hinders your ability to maintain your exercise intensity. 

Breath analysis should be the starting point for every personalized training and nutrition program since it provides the only method that reliably pinpoints your limitations and the plan you need to overcome them. Breath analysis, using a tool like the PNOĒ Metabolic Breath Analyzer, gives metabolic information to provide an in-depth analysis of heart, lung, muscular, and neuromuscular function in real-time. Examining metabolic and respiratory limiters provides metrics to build a program designed to create a more efficient athlete. 

Without access to breath analysis, you can still work on improving your breathing mechanics and quality of breath without any equipment. At Peak State Fit, we encourage all athletes to get in the habit of doing a purposeful warm-up prior to training. Notice the keyword, purposeful! Everything you do as an athlete should have meaning and purpose. A warm-up we have developed over the years includes a bit of mobility to get the muscles warm, followed by some targeted muscle activation, concluding with decompression breathing. The element of decompressing the cage of ribs to open for more expansive breathing involves bringing the body into anatomical position to facilitate expansive breathing. 

The rib cage can inhibit or facilitate healthy lung function. Your rib cage’s capacity to open on inhalation and not collapse on exhalation controls the quality of your breath. The ideal inhalation lifts the body up and lifts the entire rib cage away from the pelvis. On the exhale, maintain the expansion of the ribs. The key to proper decompression breathing is maintaining the expansiveness of the ribs. Another cue to maintain proper alignment of the skull back is “chin back, chest up.” This elevates the sternocleidomastoid and the scalene muscles, as they assist in elevating the rib cage. 

RELATED: Cues to Improve your Swim, Bike, and Run Posture

Quality breathing is attainable with a thought-driven approach to posture and muscle action. There is simplicity in its complex design. Most of us need help to relearn how to breathe and open new pathways through conscious mobility training. At Peak State Fit in Salt Lake City, Utah, we use technology, like PNOĒ, as a tool to assess an individual, then we program modalities to improve the quality of movement through their recommended training and position on the bike through a professional bike fit. 

The principles of decompression breathing are credited to Foundation Training by its creator Dr. Eric Goodman. Here’s a good video tutorial.  

Heather Casey is an Ironman regional head coach, a USA Triathlon Level 2 coach, certified strength & conditioning specialist, and sports nutritionist. She runs Peak State Fit with her husband Pat.