Post written by coach Gabi Bradley, Animal Flow Level 2 + CrossFit Level 1 Instructor
Set a timer for one minute. Inhale for 5 seconds. Exhale for 5 seconds. Repeat for the rest of the minute.
How did it go? How do you feel now? How did you breathe? Through your mouth or nose? Did you take full breaths that expanded your rib cage or shallow breaths that didn’t make it past your chest? Did you struggle to inhale or exhale for the full 5 seconds?
You’ve no doubt heard that when you’re feeling stressed or out of breath that you need to “Take a deep breath.” Well, there’s a lot more to it than that. Breathing can improve your health, which means it can improve your performance. But, like your double unders or back squat, you also need to properly train your breathing to be more efficient. Let’s dive into the benefits of proper breathing and the foundations of how to do it!
That is, you’re too sensitive to carbon dioxide (CO2), and you need to fix that relationship.
Until now you have likely focused on oxygen (O2) because that’s what school taught you; you breathe in O2 to fuel your body and get rid of CO2 as waste. But you can only breathe in so much usable O2 and CO2 isn’t only wasted gas. So the goal of better breathing is to use your O2 more efficiently. CO2 is an important (and overlooked) factor in this process because it boosts O2 release in your tissues (aka muscles). The more CO2 you can tolerate in your blood, the more O2 you’ll carry and drop off to your cells.
But as I stated, you have relationship issues with CO2. It leaves you feeling panicky as if you don’t have enough O2, so you begin to overbreathe; taking in huge, gulping breaths or shallow, rapid breaths. Both of these eliminate the CO2 we determined you need for better O2 use. So, how can you make your relationship with CO2 more tolerable?
You may feel that breathing through your mouth (especially when you’re working out) allows you to get more O2. Sure it’s coming in, but you can’t use it all, especially since you’re eliminating the CO2 that you need. While working out this causes you to use more energy because O2 isn’t being released in your tissues; which makes you feel tired, which causes you to gasp for air. It’s an endless cycle.
Your mouth was made for eating and it serves as an emergency breathing tool should you need it. Your nose was made for breathing. Not only does it warm and filter the air, but your nose also maintains the correct O2 to CO2 ratio in your body. Nasal breathing allows you to use O2 more efficiently and engage your diaphragm, which also increases O2 use in your muscles.
Nasal breathing also taps into your central nervous system. Nasal breathing can energize by activating your sympathetic nervous system (right nostril breathing), relax by activating your parasympathetic nervous system (left nostril breathing), or can balance and focus by activating the two nervous systems (alternate nostril breathing).
Chances are you aren’t training your most important breathing muscle, the diaphragm. Like every other muscle in your body, it needs to be worked. Properly engaging the diaphragm not only allows O2 to reach deep into the lungs, but it is also important in supporting core stability and posture. Additionally, you’ll be able to perform longer, fuller exhalations that get stale air out and allow more fresh air in.
To use your diaphragm, inhale through your nose and into your belly. It helps to place a hand over your belly and your chest. As you inhale, try to push your rib cage into the hand over your belly, while keeping the hand over your chest still. Exhale through your nose, tightening your abs and pulling them away from your hand.
When you exercise, your breathing rate is going to increase. Your body uses more O2 and therefore produces more CO2 (are you noticing a theme here?). One of the ways to help manage and increase your tolerance for CO2 is to hold your breath. When you practice hypoventilation training (controlled inhales and exhales followed by breath holds), you maximize O2 offloading in muscle cells and increase endurance and stamina.
Perform breath holds before, during, and after exercise. But if you’re just starting out, you need to make sure you can perform these exercises while stationary, with proper breathing technique, before you try to apply it to your next WOD. After you can perform the exercises while sitting, try them while walking and gradually increasing intensity.
If you want to practice breath holds (while stationary or walking), here’s a simple way to start:
You now know all this awesome stuff about breathing and you even have a few exercises to try, so now what?
The first thing to do is to consciously breathe more. You know you can control your breath. So pay attention to it and make it work for you to fit your needs as opposed to always just letting it happen.
Remember, it’s a practice. The first time you try nasal-only breathing on a workout it’s going to be hard and will slow you down (I am speaking from very recent personal experience). Your tolerance is going to be low to start, so you have to let your need for air determine your pace. If you feel like you have to open your mouth to inhale or exhale, you’re working beyond your CO2 tolerance.
It doesn’t have to be hard, but it does need to be consistent and intentional. Start with 5 minutes a day. If you need some help, use an app like Breathwrk that offers free guided breathing exercises to help you breathe better. To learn more about the science of breathing, I highly recommend James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.
Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The new science of a lost art [Audiobook]. Penguin Random House Audio.