Is There A Right Way To Breathe During Exercise?
Whether you want to make your workouts more mindful or you’re ready to focus on maximising your athletic performance, training your breath alongside your muscles can enhance the benefits of your workouts.
Breathing is something that you do all day, every day, but learning how to regulate your breath during exercise can make your workouts easier and more enjoyable. Using correct breath technique can also boost your performance by helping you to maintain correct form throughout each movement.
Why does the way you breathe matter?
How you breathe — both during exercise and while resting — can impact blood pressure, heart rate and overall stress levels. In fact, your breath plays an important role in regulating the the autonomic nervous system, which maintains a balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. These nervous systems control whether you are in a stress-response mode, fully relaxed, or somewhere in between.
When you breathe fast and shallow, this activates the stress response within your body, increasing muscle tension and raising your heart rate. When you breathe deeply and slowly, this activates the parasympathetic, or relaxation, response within your body, causing muscles to relax and allowing processes like digestion to continue.
When you exercise your heart rate naturally increases, as does the depth and frequency of your breathing. Your lungs are working harder than when you’re in a resting state. A 2016 factsheet in Breathe, endorsed by the European Respiratory Society, explains that the lungs work to increase the amount of oxygen in your blood and expel carbon dioxide, while your heart pumps oxygenated blood to your muscles.
When it comes to regulating your breath during exercise, your body will mostly do the work for you. But there are certain ways to ensure you’re getting enough oxygen to your muscles to help support you as you exercise, exercise for longer, and reduce fatigue.
Proper technique for breathing during exercise
While there are specific breathing techniques for different training styles, there are some breathing techniques that you can use for every type of movement.
Breathe into your diaphragm
Your diaphragm is the muscle just below your lungs that helps to expand the space in your chest to allow air to flow into your lungs. It naturally contracts as you breathe in and out.
Concentrating on breathing into your diaphragm can help to increase the amount of oxygen you get each time you inhale. To breathe into your diaphragm instead of your chest, focus on expanding and contracting your belly as you breathe, rather than your chest.
Don’t hold your breath
Your muscles need oxygen to function properly, so it’s important to breathe properly during exercise. You may need to alter the pattern of your breathing for certain types of exercise, such as breathing out during a heavy lift. It’s important to keep your breathing steady by timing it with your movement to ensure the muscles are adequately oxygenated to perform optimally.
Establish a rhythm
If you’re trying to concentrate on breathing during exercise, it can be helpful to breathe rhythmically, in time with your movement. This can help you to regulate or slow down your breathing — whether that’s while doing yoga, or while synchronising your breaths with your footfalls while running.
It’s normal for breathing to be a little harder
When you exercise, it’s perfectly normal for it to feel a little harder to breathe, especially if you are exercising at a high intensity. In fact, you can use your breathing to assess your rate of perceived exertion. If you are finding it hard to breathe, you may need to slow down and decrease the intensity to catch your breath again before increasing the intensity.
It’s okay to do this throughout a workout — in fact, during a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or Tabata workout you’ll do this a number of times as you alternate between exercising at a maximal rate for short bursts and then decreasing your effort to exercise at a lower intensity.
Exhale during effort, inhale during rest
This rule generally applies to strength training — ensuring you breathe out while exerting effort or contracting your muscles. Many women find they automatically hold their breath during an intense effort or heavy lift. Ensuring you exhale out carbon dioxide during the effort keeps you breathing and prepares your lungs to inhale oxygen as your muscles relax. This helps to keep your blood pressure stable and increases endurance, so you can exercise for longer.
Should you breathe through your nose or your mouth?
You can breathe through either. On a cold morning, you may find it more comfortable to breathe through your nose, warming the air as it enters your body. When you’re doing a high-intensity effort or sprint, breathing through your mouth will maximise air flow and allow rapid exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen to fuel powerful muscle contractions.
How to breathe for specific types of exercise
Breathing for yoga may be different from breathing during a long run. Each different workout type has its own optimal breathing technique, so here’s a few to consider:
When lifting heavy loads, most people inhale just before lifting up a heavy object — a small 2010 study by Stony Brook University and Long Island University in the US, published in Ergonomics, found that when lifting loaded crates, people tend to increase the amount of air they take in just before lifting.
When it comes to strength training, exhaling as you are exerting force (as you lift a dumbbell during a bicep curl, for example, or “push” during a push-up), and inhaling as you return to the starting position is most efficient and considered best-practice. This breathing method helps to increase stability of the lumbar (lower) spine and core, providing a stronger position for the lift.
In the example of a bench press, the proper breathing technique is to inhale as you lower the weight down toward your chest, and exhale as you push the barbell away from your body.
During heavy weights training, many people may find that they hold their breath during a lift, breathe in a restricted way (this technique is called the “Valsalva manoeuvre”). A 2013 literature review from the University of Sydney, Australia, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, found that holding the breath or using this restricted breathing technique helps to increase the stability of the spine by increasing intra-abdominal pressure. This technique is associated with increased blood pressure, which may have health risks for certain people.
During yoga, your breath is a key focus of your practice. There are multiple ways to practise yoga breathing (also known by the Sanskrit name “Pranayama”). The simplest form is box breathing, or “Sama Vritti”, where you count the length of your breath and inhale, hold then exhale for an equal of counts.
For example, to perform box breathing, you simply inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, and then exhale four counts, and repeat.
A 2018 systematic review by the University of Pisa, Italy, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, observed that slow breathing techniques produce autonomic nervous system changes, including increasing heart rate variability, a measure of the time between heartbeats that is linked to recovery after stress. In other words, slowing your breathing can help you to recover faster when you are under stress.
During the physical practice of yoga, the “asanas” or poses, you should avoid holding your breath, even if the posture or movement is difficult. Consistent inhalation and exhalation will help to calm your mind and relax your body so you can experience the full cardiovascular and mental benefits of your practice.
When running, most people will adopt a pattern of breathing that is linked in some way to their cadence — the number of times each foot hits the ground.
Research suggests that there is a common way that runners choose to breathe for maximum comfort while running. A 2013 research article from the University of Utah in the US, published in PLOS One, observed that runners typically prefer a 2:1 breathing ratio while running — they inhale for two steps, and exhale for one step. This may minimise the load placed on your respiratory muscles while running, and reduce fatigue.
The upshot? While running, you most likely fall into a rhythm of breath — but intentionally breathing with the pace of your steps (in a 2:1 rhythm) may help to increase endurance and minimise fatigue.
Getting the most out of your workouts
Doing breathing exercises can help to improve your workouts, and it’s also a tool that can help to increase mindfulness and improve your overall wellbeing. You can use breathing exercises in your at-home yoga practice, or as part of your recovery sessions to help you to stay on track on your rest days.
Even if you aren’t exercising regularly, incorporating breathing exercises into your day could be the first step you take towards establishing healthy habits that will last.
* Results may vary. Strict adherence to the nutrition and exercise guide are required for best results.