Breathing and sports performance

Impaired breathing habits limit your sports performance. If your breathing is impaired, you can’t run, swim, bike or maintain your concentration, strength, and endurance optimally.

A study of 331 people, ranging from recreational exercisers to elite athletes, showed that 65 percent of the participants considered their breathing to be the limiting factor while performing maximally. But how many of us actively practice to improve our breathing for optimal oxygenation when we jog, bike, play soccer, golf, tennis or ice hockey? 

Study of 331 athletes – What stops you at maximum performance?
Weak muscles (poor fitness)15%
Tired muscles (lactic acid)20%
Breathing65%

Below we go through eleven reasons why you should apply proper ‘conscious breathing’ in order to improve your athletic performance.

  1. Creates open airways: Good breathing habits ensure the airways are open and well-functioning. Reasons for airways to become tight are mouth breathing (un-filtered, dry air), less retained CO2 and NO (produced in the nose) with antibacterial, as well as relaxing and widening effect on the smooth muscles in the airways.
  2. Creates an efficient gas exchange in the lungs: Your respiratory tract divides into smaller and smaller parts, a full 23 times, before the air reaches the alveoli. The blood flow is ten times greater at the bottom of the lungs (1 liter or 0.25 gallons per minute), compared to the top (1 deciliter or 0.4 cups per minute) and the number of alveoli is also significantly higher in the lower parts. So, it is very important that the passage is open in order for the air to reach all the way down.
  3. Efficient use of the breathing muscles: The diaphragm is your most important breathing muscle; it’s constantly active. The diaphragm typically does 70-80 percent of the muscle work at rest, but if you don’t use it sufficiently, it will become understimulated, tense, and weakened. When you’re physically active, a weakened diaphragm may manifest as side stitches or you get tired quickly.
  4. Increases the blood’s oxygen carrying capacity: In the lungs, the oxygen is transferred to the blood for further transport into the body. The oxygen travels in the blood bound to hemoglobin. At a regular breathing pattern at rest, the hemoglobin is already saturated with almost as much oxygen as possible, about 96-99 percent.To increase your performance, you can boost your oxygen carrying capacity by increasing the number of red blood cells. By reducing your breathing when you exercise, i.e. breathing through your nose and extending your exhale, you can lower the oxygen saturation and get the same effect as you would at high altitude training; increased EPO production, a hormone produced by your kidneys following lower oxygen saturation, triggering your spleen (your ‘blood bank’ with apps. 8% of additional red blood cells) to release some of its reserve.
  5. Provides open and unrestricted blood vessels: excessive breathing doesn’t correspond to the body’s needs and creates an imbalance between the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Specifically, it causes the blood to contain too much oxygen and too little carbon dioxide, which causes the blood vessels to constrict; i.e. carbon dioxide has a relaxing effect on the tissue surrounding bloodvessels. 
  6. Cleans the blood and makes it more fluid: The lungs are the only organs that receive all the blood. An often overlooked function of the lungs is therefore to clean the blood. Since most of the blood flow in the lower parts of the lungs, it takes a low diaphragmatic breathing for this cleaning to be effective.
  7. More effective energy production and increased ability to burn fat: We have covered energy production in this article. Simply put, fat can’t be burned without oxygen. Impaired breathing leads to less effective oxygen distribution and delivery to your cells. Less oxygen in your cells shut the door to your fat reserves and over time it may lead to overweight, also caused by a possible increase in sugar cravings for fast energy production.
  8. Increased oxygenation of muscles and organs: E.g. when you move your right arm, it uses up more oxygen compared to your left arm if it’s still. The more activity, the greater the need for oxygen, so that sufficient energy can be produced. In a working muscle, carbon dioxide (and heat) exits the muscle and when it reaches the blood, it “kicks” the oxygen away from the hemoglobin so that the oxygen travels the opposite direction, i.e. into the muscle. That way, the muscle can keep working effectively. For this mechanism to work properly, CO2 pressure needs to be optimum, which will be the result of proper, conscious breathing.
  9. Decreases stress and speeds up recovery: For an athlete, it’s rarely a problem to “switch gears into turbo mode”; activate the fight or flight response  increasing the levels of stress hormones like adrenaline, when it’s time to perform. But the ability to put in a lower gear and slow down, to be able to quickly recover when the opportunity arises is a challenge for many. Proper breathing activates the parasympathetic part of your nervous system; your “rest and digest”-system. By doing so, your heart rate lowers, digestion is improved, and the muscles in the blood vessels and airways relax.
  10. Maximum power and relaxation during the exhale: The best results when hitting a golf ball, tennis ball, soccer ball, etc., is attained while exhaling. If we want to increase the power, we tighten the abdomen muscles, purse the throat, and squeeze the air out. The exhale causes the parasympathetic, relaxing part of the nervous system (the brake pedal) to activate. The heart rests and recovers and the heart rate decreases. When your body is relaxed, you function better and can accomplish more with less effort.
  11. Keeps you healthier: Proper, conscious breathing ensures that your nose is filtering out many bacteria, viruses, chemicals, and other particles. The   nose also produces a lot of mucus. If the air doesn’t circulate in the nose, the mucus doesn’t clear up, and that can lead to infections like sinusitis and ear infection. Another reason for inflammations is the free oxygen radicals that are continuously being produced in the body. When we inhale more oxygen than the body needs, it increases the formation of free oxygen radicals. And when that happens over a longer period of time, the inflammations become chronic which, in turn, can result in pain, fatigue, and injuries.
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