Basketball players instinctively do it for a few seconds at the free-throw line. Gymnasts do it before they hop on the balance beam. “It puts me in a perfect state of mental and physiological readiness,” says Alice Post, a BMX rider from St. Cloud, Minnesota, who won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics when she launched from the starting chute just after doing two minutes of controlled, rhythmic breathing.
It’s simple: Post inhales for six seconds, exhales for four seconds—a total of 10 seconds per breath and six breaths per minute. It’s a technique yogis have used for thousands of years to quiet the mind, and one that a coach at the Olympic Training Center taught Post several years ago. Since then, she says she’s crashed less, focused better, and achieved the best results of her career.
It’s no surprise that slow breathing is great for endurance athletes too, but for a different reason: According to experts, it can reduce physical and mental stress after a hard workout or hard day at work. It can help you get better sleep and get to sleep faster. It can help workout-battered muscles heal and strengthen, and it can even reduce blood pressure, inflammation, and speed healing. Put those all together, and slow breathing can enhance one thing triathletes, runners, and cyclists all struggle with: recovery.
“You can have a beer to help you calm down, but it won’t help your long-term recovery,” says Lindsay Thornton, senior sports psychophysiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs. “Slow breathing will.”
The reason it works, according to Richard Gevirtz, the professor of health psychology at Alliant International University, who has studied breathing biofeedback data for 30 years, is that it helps “re-set” your heartbeat into an ideal healing rhythm, or “resonance frequency.”
Technically, this means that practicing slow, controlled 6-breaths-per-minute breathing will help lower stress responses associated with “fight-or-flight” mechanisms and improve heart rate variability (HRV).
HRV is the measurement of variations within beat-to-beat intervals. While you average 1 beat per second if your resting pulse is 60 bpm, the space between each beat is not the same; it may actually vary from half a second to 1.5 seconds. The Russians were innovators in this eld, monitoring HRV a half-century ago to check the health of cosmonauts. They noticed that the bigger the variability, the healthier and more primed for action they were. The smaller the variability between beats indicates fatigue and a diminished ability to respond to changes in stress.
So what to do? Just follow Post’s example for 10 minutes a day. Practice breathing in for six seconds and breathing out for four. For skeptics who scoff at meditation, consider this real physical training instead. Well-practiced controlled breathing can help you better prep for an event, go to sleep faster, and boost overall recovery and health. Tech giant Apple found it so useful for everyone—not just athletes—that their engineers even built it into software on the Series 3 Watch in an app aptly named “Breathe.”
The best part: There’s pretty much no downside to trying. So take a deep breath (or 36) it might even improve your mental game.