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Breathing Exercises to Increase and Sustain Energy for Workouts

Here is an excerpt from Harvey Martin’s Breath, Focus, Excel book about how athletes can improve and sustain their energy levels during workouts through breathing exercises such as Buteyko method, static breath-holding, hypoxic breath training and hypoventilation training.

Breath is the foundation of everything we do. It is the communicator in the mind–body connection and a gateway to the nervous system. Breathing is the key to all biological processes in the body. We receive continuous feedback from sensations, perceptions, feelings, and emotions. Functions in the mind and body affect the way we breathe, or the way we breathe affects functions in our mind and body. Understanding this feedback is the main driver in an athlete’s mental and physical state during performance. 

Breathing can be improved, strengthened, and trained just like any other skill developed on the field or in the weight room. By implementing breath work as a stand-alone practice, athletes have the ability to use breath to affect other components of performance, such as how they move, digest food, recover, sleep, and think. Various breathing exercises can be used to manage energy, understand stress, and adapt to stress by altering and manipulating respiration. Here are some of the best breathing exercises that will increase your energy during your workouts.

Figure 4.2 Triune brain model.

Buteyko Method 

The Buteyko method is the first exercise we’ll explore. This method uses breath-retention practice to control your breath, so that you breathe more slowly and with more volume. This technique helps people who over-breathe or hyperventilate to establish breath awareness, strengthen nasal breathing, and train the body to breathe more slowly.

How to practice:

On lighter-activity days, hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe. Once you feel the urge to breathe, inhale slowly and through the nose. Then breathe normally for a minimum of 10 seconds and maximum of 30 seconds. Repeat 10 times. Perform a light-activity breath-holding practice two or three times a week.

On heavy-activity days, hold your breath until you feel the strongest urge to breathe. Once you feel the strong urge to breathe, inhale through the nose. This inhalation might not be slow and might be more intense because you’re holding until you feel a strong need to breathe. Then breathe normally for a minimum of 20 seconds and maximum of 40 seconds. Repeat 10 times. Perform a heavy-activity breath-holding practice once a week.

Static Breath-Holding 

Static breath-holding is practiced without movement. It requires more endurance than the Buteyko method. As such, wait until after you’re comfortable with the Buteyko method before you practice static breath holds. 

In static breath-holding, you hold your breath for as long as you can in a controlled fashion, with the goal to push deeper into breath-holding. This will improve lung capacity for athletic performance. Using more of your lung capacity will not only improve your fitness levels, but you will also find it easier to control your breathing under pressure.

Figure 5.1 Lung volume and capacity measurements.

How to practice:

Warming up for static breath-holding is very important. This will help you get familiar with your breathing while maintaining a neutral nervous system. To perform this, inhale through your nose for 5.5 seconds, then exhale through your nose for 5.5 seconds. Take a pause after each inhale and exhale, and repeat for 5 minutes.

After warming up, customized static breath-holding is an individualized protocol and it’s a good starting point. Each hold is 50% of your inhale breath-hold time. This creates minimal stress on the mind and body, while decreasing the rest period as you move through the breathing exercise. This protocol should take 10 to 15 minutes.

Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground, or sit crossed-legged on the floor. If these positions are uncomfortable, you can lie on your back with your knees bent and feet on the floor. Keep a neutral spine in either position. Before holding your breath, exhale all the air before taking a deep inhale.

An example customized routine:

Step One: Inhale 50% of your lung capacity hold 5 times, with 1-minute rest between each hold.

Step Two: Inhale 50% of your lung capacity hold 1 time with 45-second rest.

Step Three: Inhale 50% of your lung capacity hold 1 time with 30-second rest.

Step Four: Inhale 50% of your lung capacity hold 1 time with 15-second rest.

Hypoxic Breath Training

Hypoxic breath training simulates breathing at high altitude, where oxygen levels are lower. The simplest way to practice this is to actually be at high altitude, but not everyone has easy access to the top of a mountain! High-altitude environments have less oxygen, and when you’re living or training at high altitude, you acquire more red blood cells, which allows you to carry more oxygen in the blood. This strengthens blood vessels and allow for more blood flow, which improve the heart functionality to enhance muscular performance and in general greater well-being. This training simulates high-altitude training and is a great way to simulate a high-altitude training as well.

How to practice:

In this exercise the objective is to perform one clean set of 6 to 10 reps while holding your breath. You can start by breathing through the nose to calm the body and nervous system until you feel ready. After the final exhale, perform your exercise movement while holding your breath. Recover by breathing through the nose until it returns to normal. On average, it takes 5 to 10 breaths through the nose or 15 to 30 seconds to recover. After full recovery, exhale and do the movement again. If you have to take the first few recovery breaths through your mouth, you held your breath too long. The exercise should be done with only nasal breathing throughout and 10 minutes should be enough. These breathing exercises should prepare you for a great training session afterward. Train consistently for four to six weeks and then take two weeks off before resuming hypoxic breath-hold training. You can track your progress by noting how long you held your breath or how far you move. You should notice improvement around weeks four to six.

For example, if you’re jogging, continue to jog with consistent timed steps and breathe through the nose only for 15 to 30 seconds. Exhale and hold your breath while you continue to jog. Once you feel a strong need to breathe, breathe through the nose to recover and keep on jogging during the recovery period. Once you are breathing normally again, exhale and repeat. Perform this exercise for 10 minutes.

However, keep in mind that this method can make you feel claustrophobic or like your heart is racing, or it can cause anxiety. You may also feel like your vision is narrowing at the peak of a breath hold. It is normal to feel uncomfortable, but if you feel unsafe, decrease the distance of the movement, the number of reps, or the time for the hold. Exhale naturally rather than forcing.

Hypoventilation Training

Hypoventilation training uses either abnormally slow breathing or short, consistent breath holds while undertaking activities such as running, cycling, rowing, and swimming. It is an advanced breathing training that athletes use during off-season when they try to push their body. These are not long breath holds because holding the breath too long taxes the body and leads to early exhaustion. Hypoventilation protocols should be performed only during training and not in competition. During hypoventilation training, carbon dioxide levels rise while oxygen levels drop.

How to practice:

Let’s say you’re running or jogging. Keep on at a pace you can control and pace your steps with your breath. Once ready, inhale through your nose for 3 seconds (i.e. 3 steps) then exhale through your nose for 3 seconds (i.e. 3 steps). After 5 or 6 breaths, complete a normal exhalation through your nose, and hold your breath while counting to 6 or 8 or 10 steps. Inhale through your nose again for 3 seconds (3 steps) and exhale through your nose for 3 seconds (3 steps) for another 5 or 6 breaths. Continue the cycle for 10 to 15 minutes. 

You don’t have to complete this exercise perfectly. The goal is performing exhale holds in rhythm with your pace and lowering the breath frequency while you run. This exercise requires mental focus.

This type of training doesn’t cause serious health issues; however, it may be difficult or uncomfortable, similar to any high-intensity training. If you have high blood pressure, cardiac disease, or pulmonary disease, or other pre-existing medical conditions, you should consult with a medical professional before performing intense hypoventilation training protocols.

Breathe, Focus, Excel book cover

Adapted from:

Breathe, Focus, Excel

Harvey Martin

Header photo by Johann Walter Bantz

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