Breathing Mechanics For Athletic Performance Gains

How many times a day do you breathe without even thinking about it? The typical human averages between 17,000 and 20,000 breaths a day. Now, think about how your breath changes when you are exercising or competing. Your breathing rate might become more frequent or even deeper as the effort level of your activity increases, your body will work harder to pump oxygen to your limbs. What if I told you that the way you were breathing could affect how well you perform in your sport or influence whether or not you incur a training injury? Let’s take a closer look at breathing mechanics and how they might contribute to your performance. 

Breathing - You’re doing it wrong!


We will start by recapping how most athletes are breathing toward the end of a high intensity workout or race as well as what they might look like as they slog through an “easy” workout without paying attention to form. Several things may happen to the athlete’s posture. 

One scenario is that the athlete will be exerting so much energy that they will arch their lower back and protrude their bellies and ribs in an effort to further fill their already full lungs. This same posture can happen in an athlete on an easy run who thinks that “good form” means keeping their shoulders and back straight upright as this often leads to overextension of the low back. 

In another scenario, the athlete allows their shoulders to roll forward and their backs to slouch. This may be due to fatigue, weakness, or plain laziness on an easy run, and can contribute to the athlete incorrectly utilizing their upper shoulders to help pull air into the lungs via a lifting or shrugging of the shoulders. This type of breathing pattern can also happen on the bike when the athlete is in arrow position. Both of these scenarios culminate in inefficient oxygen exchange which contributes to weakened performance and can cause overuse injuries most commonly in the low back, neck, or hamstrings.


More Efficient Oxygen Exchange

Now that we understand poor breathing postures, let’s discuss how we can achieve a more efficient oxygen exchange. Think back to the first scenario that we discussed above - you’re finishing a hard workout, chest protruded, arms pumping, and low back arched to fill your lungs with the oxygen your body craves. Or, you begin shrugging your shoulders to help fill the last little bit of space in your lungs with air. The reason your body assumes these postures during your inhalation (especially during hard effort workouts) is because you haven’t been efficient enough in getting air out on your exhalation. 

To summarize, your lungs are filled with too much CO2 and there’s no space left for oxygen. On your inhale you instinctively flare your lower ribs by extending the low back or shrug your shoulders to make extra space in your upper lungs. This faulty pattern of breathing occurs because you haven’t expelled enough CO2 on your exhale to make room for fresh air.

A client of mine came up with this analogy: Think of your lungs with CO2 in them as two mason jars of muddy water. You can never fill them with clean water or oxygen until you’ve fully emptied out the dirty water. How much better could your body perform if it didn’t have to work so hard for fresh oxygen? It all comes down to practice in becoming more proficient at exhaling.


Relearning How To Breathe

Most athletes passively exhale, meaning they don’t effectively use their abdominal muscles, specifically their internal obliques and transversus abdominus, to expel air from their lungs. If you place your hands on either side of your rib cage during an appropriate exhale you should feel your ribs move closer together and down toward your pelvis as air is expelled without your shoulders and trunk slouching forward as they would when completing a sit up.

Relearning how to breathe effectively will be a challenge to implement into your workouts (especially higher intensity workouts) because your body is likely to fall back into old habits in order to oxygenate. My recommendation would be to slowly introduce this style of breathing into your activity by first beginning with some simple exercises (see below), then testing it out during easy workouts before progressing to harder efforts. Treat these breathing exercises as you would foam rolling or strength workouts and do them consistently.

Standing wall reach with exhalation:

  • Stand with your back against a wall with feet slightly in front of you and knees slightly bent. This is NOT a wall squat.

  • Scoop your pelvis underneath you so that your low back is contacting the wall. There should not be an arch of space between your lower back and the wall. Squeeze a rolled up washcloth gently between your knees.

  • Reach both arms in front of you.

  • Inhale gently through your nose. This is a normal, easy breath in and your lower ribs should not lift up. Then exhale fully through your mouth as if you are slowly blowing out birthday candles. As you exhale, reach your arms forward as if you are trying to hug a beach ball. The very upper part of your back can come off of the wall, but do not let your trunk fold in half.

  • As you are exhaling and reaching feel your ribs pull down and in toward your pelvis and your abs activate.

  • Maintaining abdominal engagement (without letting your ribs elevate and flare) take another small inhale through your nose and allow the air into your upper chest. Remember - Don’t shrug your shoulders!

  • Repeat three times.

  • If you want to try a harder version use a balloon to exhale into. Try not to pinch the neck of the balloon off as you inhale.

Remember, you are trying to change a habit that’s been years in the making and strengthen abdominal muscles to work in a way that you’ve never asked them to work before. It won’t happen overnight! Need more direction for your athletic training? Contact us at PeakStateFit.com

Raechel Bugner PT, DPT, FAFS