Breathing in sports: It’s all about technique!

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To achieve higher performance, our body needs more oxygen. When doing Freeletics we get very close to the limits of our performance, which is why it is so important to optimize breathing as much as possible to ensure constant oxygen supply to our body.

What happens during breathing?

The lungs themselves are not muscles, but they are, so to speak, glued to the thorax and the diaphragm. As the thorax and/or the diaphragm expand by the straining of muscles, the lungs follow this movement, creating a vacuum that sucks in air. Fresh air enters the lungs where oxygen is filtered through air sacks called alveoli which act as a passage to join to red blood cells in the blood stream. These cells transport oxygen through blood vessels to organs and muscles, so they can burn nutrients and release energy by using it. With physical exertion, more energy must be generated, so requiring more oxygen.

While exhaling, blood carries carbon dioxide, from cellular respiration, from all tissues to the alveoli. Carbon dioxide is exhaled when the chest cavity shrinks and that the air is pushed out of the lungs. Although lungs are not muscle tissue, diaphragm and intercostal muscles (muscles of the rib cage) are indispensable to this process.

The diaphragm is part of the striated muscles and may be controlled arbitrarily, for example, when we hold our breath. But our body takes necessary measures, should this take too long: fine sensors measure the concentration of carbon dioxide and report a lack of oxygen to the brain, which then triggers the natural reflex of breathing.

With abdominal breathing to top form!

There are two different kinds of pulmonary respiration: chest and abdominal breathing. To try both kinds, inhale so that the thorax rises significantly. This is achieved by straining the intercostal muscles.

With abdominal breathing, however, the lungs follow the lowering of the diaphragm in the direction of the abdominal cavity, and as a result, the belly bulges. Since abdominal breathing involves significantly fewer muscles, this kind of breathing is less exhausting and is, for example, initiated automatically when we are relaxed. Conscious abdominal breathing may be of special advantage during physical but also during mental activities as more energy is made available to the rest of the body. Besides, it uses the lung volume fully, thus allowing air to enter the lower part of the lungs and oxygen to reach more of the alveoli. Accordingly, more oxygen can be distributed in the body. Be it while running or working out: deliberately concentrate on breathing “into the belly” in order to exploit the full capacity of your lung volume.

What else is there to consider?

We tend to take a deep breath before facing a challenge of high physical exertion. This is a very natural reflex, because the body wants to be supplied with more oxygen to activate its systems. With physical exertion, however, exactly the opposite is needed: make sure to inhale during moderate physical load and exhale during increased physical load.

Breathing is less effective if the exchange of air occurs only in the upper respiratory tract – for example when breathing shortly or panting. The density of blood vessels in the upper part of the lungs is rather low, which reduces the potential exchange of oxygen with blood. To begin with, it may be very tedious to pay attention to your breathing technique, and it will probably slow you down. But once you have done this a few times with focus, you will quickly internalize this technique and apply it without thinking. As a result, you will gradually increase your capacity in the long-term. Even if at times when your workout is not going well and you find yourself having a hard time, it may help to recall the technique and apply it consciously.

And how do I breathe while running?

There are different recommendations for running workouts, such as inhaling and exhaling after a certain number of steps. A simultaneous focus on running, counting, and breathing may result just in the opposite: incorrect straining of the muscles involved in breathing, which will cause more problems, such as stitches in the side. In our opinion, such suggestions are completely unnecessary. Our brain has a respiratory regulation center which automatically adapts our breathing to our rhythm during running. Should you have any problems breathing while running, just lower your pace a little and you will find the correct rhythm automatically. With each run, your breathing will get easier.

Beware of holding your breath!

Under stressful conditions and with increased physical exertion, many people tend to hold their breath. A reddened face or bloated cheeks may be visible signs of this. The air that should actually be exhaled is pressed against the closed epiglottis and cannot escape even though the diaphragm is in breathing-out position. This creates very high pressure in the thorax, which in turn causes acutely increased blood pressure in the arteries, exerting massive stress on the vessel walls and also impeding the blood flow back to the heart. This may lead to decreased blood flow to the brain, but also to the heart itself.

In particular for older people, athletes who suffer from high blood pressure and for patients with atherosclerosis or other coronary diseases, such pressure on the vessels poses a great danger.

If you follow the suggestions above and manage to adapt the speed of your movements to this continuous rhythm of breathing, you have laid the foundation for increased performance. Nothing will prevent you then from achieving your actual objective – be it muscle gain or  fat loss.