Part two of our new Breathwork Basics series
By PJ Nestler
In the first part of this series Coming Back to Breath – How Breath Awareness Can Bust Stress, Improve Performance, and Enhance Recovery, we gave you the freshman 101 level overview of how to get back in touch with your breathing, encourage relaxation-inducing diaphragm breaths (instead of stress-increasing mouth/upper chest ones), and learn what optimal breathing looks like and feels like. Congratulations, you got an A! So now it’s time you graduated to today’s 202 class. We’re going to dive a bit deeper into how to start applying breathwork progressively during various levels of activity.
OK, here goes. So once you’ve nailed relaxed breathing while lying down, progress to doing it while sitting. Next, apply the same breathing pattern (slow and controlled nasal inhale from your diaphragm, slower nasal exhale) while kneeling. Then stand up. Collect at least five minutes in each of these three positions. Once this feels comfortable, we can start challenging the integrity of your breathing mechanics by adding the demands of physical activity. Again, we’re going to start slowly here because there’s no point in you going all Usain Bolt in a full sprint, doing pool training exercises, or lifting heavy weights in the gym if your breath pattern falls apart during lower intensity pursuits.
So let’s begin by having you take a 20 to 30 minute walk while only breathing in and out through your nose. If you can, try to keep each breath slow and nonchalant, and to make minimal to no noise while doing so. This will ensure you’re not overbreathing, and are instead taking in adequate oxygen while blowing off sufficient carbon dioxide on the other end of the breath wave. Got the walking/nasal breathing thing down? Good. Now let’s try jogging (per Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy, it might be pronounced “yogging”).
Then progress to slow rowing, standup paddleboarding, or cycling, all the while keeping tabs on your breathing type (should be nose-only), cadence (aim for five to seven steady breaths per minute), and depth (we’re looking to avoid shallow gasps or heavy, heavy inhales here). Then you should move on to try bodyweight exercises like lunges, air squats, push-ups, and pull-ups. Perform these slowly at first and then, as you get more confident and adept at self-monitoring your breathing, add in some speed or create a circuit with minimal breaks between each movement.
Once you’ve demonstrated breathing competence at these lower levels of activity, we can start to increase the demands with speed, load, intensity, density, and endurance. First, let’s be counter-intuitive and choose the latter, which simply involves going for longer distances and/or times while nose breathing. So try a 40 to 60 minute run, row, paddle, or bike ride while only breathing in and out through your nose. No problem? Then let’s challenge you with a bit more speed – say maintaining your 10K pace for a few sessions and then upping this to your 5K pace. Still doing well? Let’s have you do an interval session in which you do half the work periods with nose-nose breathing at about 75 percent of your usual intensity. Starting to mouth breathe a bit (or maybe a lot, if you go too hard, too fast)? Then dial it back a little.
As soon as you can do four out of eight or five out of 10 intervals while maintaining nasal diaphragmatic breathing, then try picking up the pace or performing a couple more work periods in the same way. Want an added challenge? Then only breathe in and out through your nose during your active recovery between each interval. Eventually, you should be able to get close to – and perhaps all the way – to getting through even your fastest intervals with nasal breathing. Doing so will greatly improve both your aerobic and anaerobic capacity. By dramatically increasing the amount and intensity of work that you’re able to do while nose breathing, you will reconfigure both your body and your brain to change what they think your endurance, power, and speed thresholds are. As you won’t be tiring out secondary respiratory muscles (like the lats, intercostals, and obliques) that fatigue quickly and start to signal the brain that you’re almost out of puff, you’ll be able to keep going faster for longer without tiring, and will avoid utter crashes and collapses that we see when people allow their breathing patterns to go haywire during a race or very hard workout.
This isn’t to say that you will never need to breathe in or out through your mouth again. When you reach between 85 and 95 percent of your max effort, it’s likely that you actually will have to begin mouth breathing again. But this should be saved for close to an all-out sprint – think Mo Farah’s legendarily fast finishes on the track. Even when this occurs, the progression we just went through should give you more awareness of your breath patterns when under various levels of duress, so that even when you’re truly red-lining you will have greater control of your breath.
Doing so will, in turn, allow you to better manage your energy levels, power output, and shifting up and down through your performance “gears” as the training or competitive situation demands. Plus, becoming more aware of your breath is just the start of re-sensitizing your inbuilt self-monitoring to other areas of your physical practice, such as movement quality, stride, and stroke rate. As XPT advisor Dr. Andy Galpin and his co-authors write in Unplugged, the most powerful fitness tracker on the planet isn’t on your wrist or in your pocket – it’s between your ears. And in the case of your breathing, your lungs, diaphragm, and nose play a big part, too.
Check back soon to read part three of the Breathwork Basics series, in which we’ll explore how to improve your carbon dioxide tolerance.