If you’re experiencing a mid-workout energy slump, how you breathe might be the key to unlocking new potential in your workout and beyond. With performance breathing, you can improve nervous system and motor function, increase focus, and optimize efficiency.
So what is performance breathing? Performance breathing is when you focus on your breathing mechanics and tempo in order to bring about a specific result. If you’re breathing on autopilot during a workout, you’re less likely to get optimal results, which means that the way you breathe during a workout might actually be making it harder for your body to get oxygen.
“We tend to hyperventilate through our mouths during high-intensity exercise or while we’re stressed,” says Omi Iwasaki, senior vice president of performance at EXOS. “This actually makes it harder to oxygenate our cells.”
Now let’s talk about how to get your body the oxygen it needs to perform.
Start with the basics
A first step to improving your performance breathing is to work on diaphragmatic breathing instead of chest breathing. “If you continually breathe rapidly and up in your chest, your stress levels will remain high,” says Tiffany Grimm, director of recovery at EXOS.
“Instead, take advantage of breaks between reps and sets and self-regulate using various breathing techniques with diaphragmatic breathing. This will help prolong your workout, give you more oxygen and energy, and help you stay regulated and strong.”
Pillar prep and movement prep, EXOS’ tried-and-true warmup activities, are the perfect place to start with gradual exposure to nasal breathing and controlled breathing. “This way you’re not just warming up your muscles and joints but also your diaphragm and respiratory system,” says Iwasaki. “You may need to move slower at first in order to do this properly, but it’s worth the time.”
Customize your workout breathing
Once you’re warmed up, it’s time to kick it into high gear. “You can do energizing breathing to start your workout, like forceful exhales to get your endorphins moving,” says Grimm. Your breathing can strongly impact your workout, so experiment.
If you’re looking for something easy to remember, Iwasaki recommends this gear method from Brian Mackenzie at Shift Adapt. The idea is to progressively increase gears as your workload progresses.
- Gear 1 (low aerobic): equal nasal in and nasal out
- Gear 2 (high aerobic): power nasal in, nasal out
- Gear 3 (anaerobic threshold): power nasal in, power nasal out
- Gear 4 (low anaerobic): nasal in, mouth out
- Gear 5 (high anaerobic): mouth in, mouth out
Perk up your performance
Beyond intensity, you can also match your breathing to the type of work. During strength training, plyometrics, medicine ball work, and power training, try to get into a rhythm that allows you to exhale during the concentric phase (like when you’re lifting a weight), and inhale during the eccentric phase of the movement (like when you’re lowering a weight).
It’s best if you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth during this training, but at least focus on controlled nasal breathing during rest periods. To help your body get the most out of your rest periods, attempt to slow your breath down and make your exhales longer than your inhales.
For energy system development, EXOS’ version of cardio, Iwasaki recommends that you try to stay nasal breathing as long as possible. Don’t worry if you have to slow down your pace or decrease your intensity at first to accommodate these breathing changes. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable in the beginning, but your body should quickly adapt to the nasal breathing and you’ll soon notice the benefits.
Better breathing, better recovery
During cooldown and regeneration, go back to nasal breathing to calm your body. Grimm recommends relaxation breathing at the end of a workout that focuses on longer exhales to activate the parasympathetic system, for example inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 2 seconds, and then exhaling for 6 seconds.
“Breathwork can be used in conjunction with typical regeneration techniques to help decrease neural tone and muscle guarding, improve tissue compliance, and improve mobility,” says Iwasaki. “It can also be a standalone exercise to strengthen your breathing muscles for future workouts.”
Breathing practice during game time
Trying to improve your breathing outside the gym? Here’s some sport-specific advice:
- Running. There’s no one best breathing pattern for running. Aim for a rhythmic pattern to help your body relax and improve efficiency, and experiment with different cadences at different speeds to see what works best. A common cadence to start is a 2:2 where you inhale for two steps and then exhale for two steps. Others prefer an off ratio like a 3:2 so you inhale for three steps, and then exhale for two steps. This way you’re always alternating sides for inhales and exhales.
- Cycling. Your posture on your bike makes it natural for you to belly breathe, so that’s a good start. Like running, a relaxed and rhythmic breathing pattern is best for cycling.
- High-impact sports. For sports like tennis, inhale while preparing for a shot or intense action and exhale through execution to maximize stiffness and power.
- High-contact sports. Right before you know you’re going to take a hit, hold your breath. If you’re delivering the blow, exhale through contact.
- Yoga. If you’re holding your breath because a pose is too painful, you’re going too hard. Work on equalizing your breath in and out.
Beyond your workout
Performance breathing doesn’t have to stay in the gym. There are so many different times that it can help you in your general life. For instance, Grimm recommends trying it during a stressful parenting situation, like when your child is throwing a tantrum. “When we self-regulate our breathing and bring ourselves down to a calm place, our children actually co-regulate with us and also experience calm,” says Grimm.
You can also try breathing techniques before large presentations at work, after a long, hard day, right when you wake up, or during any other high-pressure situation. “Nasal breathing and controlled breathing can also help performance, improve focus, help you to stay calm, and improve decision making,” says Iwasaki.
The best part is how easy it is to incorporate breathing techniques into your routine. “Focused and intentional breathwork can be performed anywhere, and it’s free. It doesn't require any fancy equipment,” says Iwasaki. “All you need is a quiet space to get comfortable either lying down or comfortably sitting in a chair or on the floor.”
With so many different breathing techniques out there, keep trying new ones until you find a practice that works the best for you. The key is consistency.
Looking for other ways to improve your performance? Try these tips to maximize your recovery.
Disclaimer: If your breathing rate is 20 times per minute or higher, consult a physician. People who have low blood pressure or are on medication to lower it, people with diabetes, and pregnant women need to exercise caution with breathing exercises. Slow, deep breathing exercises are not recommended for people with very low blood pressure or for anyone prone to fainting.
About the AuthorMore Content by Kelsey Webb