How to Improve Athletic Performance with Breathwork

August 25, 2021, Publisher: Breath Hub

Creating a tolerable air hunger and practicing breath-holds increase cardiovascular endurance. Additionally, practising nasal breathing instead of mouth breathing during intense physical exercises improve athletic performance, according to recent research.

The oxygen concentration in the blood decreases as oxygen consumption increases during exercise. At the same time, the increase in muscle activity and metabolic rate causes more carbon dioxide to be produced. This triggers air hunger – the need to breathe more – and breathing rate goes up, preserving the oxygen-carbon dioxide balance in the blood.

Because of air hunger, we turn to mouth breathing that enables us to take in and let out more air more quickly. Increased air volume causes the carbon dioxide levels in the blood to drop and eases the feeling of air hunger. But, if we just tolerate air hunger and keep breathing through the nose, the blood circulation and oxygen absorption improves, easing the feeling of air hunger.

Research shows that nasal breathing transmits oxygen better, promotes the production of nitric oxide (NO) that expands blood vessels, lowers blood pressure and improves blood circulation. In a study lead by Dr George Dallam, scientists investigated the effects of mouth-only and nasal-only breathing. Here are the findings of that research:

Participants were tested for bronchoconstriction (a condition that causes wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath as a result of the narrowing of bronchi) during exercise. Those who breathed through the mouth were found to experience exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, whereas those who breathed through the nose managed to keep their airways open thanks to the humid and warm air they breathe.

The breathing rate was found to be considerably lower in nasal breathing compared to mouth breathing. Athletes breathed 39.2 times per minute when they maintained nasal breathing during a run, compared to 49.4 times when they breathed through the mouth. Breathing in and out more slowly enables air to be inhaled deeper into the lungs and kept there for longer. This means extra time for oxygen to circulate in the blood.

The oxygen pressure in the air coming out of the body (end-tidal) is lower in nasal breathing. This means that more of the inhaled oxygen enters the blood flow and more oxygen is absorbed. The nose creates a resistance that allows us to better utilize the air we inhale. And oxygen absorption ends up to be 10 to 20 per cent more when compared to mouth breathing.

Tolerating air hunger

Breathing exercises that enable us to tolerate air hunger increase cardiovascular endurance and support athletic performance. Patrick McKeown, the author of ‘The Oxygen Advantage’, says the problem during exercise does not stem from lack of oxygen, but from insufficient oxygen transmission.

Hyperventilation causes a drop in carbon dioxide levels and that prevents tissues and organs from receiving enough oxygen. Carbon dioxide is the key variable in oxygen absorption – serving as a catalyst for haemoglobin to transmit oxygen to cells. The increase in blood’s carbon dioxide levels causes blood vessels to expand (vasodilation) and improves oxygen transmission.

Tolerating air hunger allows the carbon dioxide levels in our blood to increase. Thanks to at-home breathing exercises, one can better cope with the increase in carbon dioxide and the ability to control breathing improves. This reduces the need for hyperventilation during physical exercise.

Air hunger exercise

To create a tolerable air hunger that is neither tiring nor stressful, we deliberately decrease the amount of air we breathe in. We must try to slow down our breathing and decrease the number of breaths not by forcing ourselves but by focusing on relaxing. To increase the duration that you can comfortably tolerate air hunger for, take a short breath in and out and follow it up by 3-to-5-second breath-hold exercises while sitting.

Regularly practising breath-holds for a few seconds during physical exercise will also improve athletic performance. But if air hunger is too much and it takes longer than 10 seconds to go back to your normal breathing pattern, it is a good idea to take a break and decrease the intensity of the exercise. 

Breath holding practices

In 2019, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their discoveries on how cells adapt to oxygen availability. Their research shows our body’s ability to adapt to physiological stressor levels (hormesis). According to the research, deliberately exposing the body to oxygen deprivation triggers the kidneys to produce erythropoietin (EPO) hormone and that, in turn, stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells that carry more oxygen.

In his book ‘Play On’, Jeff Bercovici reports that 95 per cent of medals in international competitions are won by runners who train at 2,000 meters above sea level (with low levels of atmospheric oxygen), to increase red blood cell production and oxygen transmission. It is possible for athletes to obtain similar results with breathwork. Breath holding (hypoxia) practices can mimic the metabolic adaptation occurring in high altitudes, improve important parameters for athletic performance, such as cardiac function, glycolytic metabolism (breaking down glucose) and EPO levels, and thereby strengthen the cardiovascular system.

Research by Xavier Woorons, Grégoire P. Millet and Charly Fornasier-Santos who study the health of athletes, physical performance, and exercise physiology examined the effects of breath-hold on short distance, fast athletic performance. Results of the research done on swimmers showed that the number of repeated sprints increased from 7 to 9 and hypoxia induced by short-term hypoventilation – reducing the number of breaths – increased cardiovascular endurance. This means better long-distance performance and less fatigue.