Getting enough oxygen into the working muscles is a fundamental prerequisite of any physical activity, but even the best cardiovascular system can be held back by shallow, restrictive or badly timed breathing.
The muscles that help us breathe can also contribute to stability, posture and movement, so our breathing deserves a lot more focus and attention than we might appreciate.
When we breathe in, oxygen enters the lungs, goes into the bloodstream and feeds the muscles. That process begins from the start of the inhale and continues until we stop inhaling. When we breathe out, carbon dioxide is expelled. Although a slow, steady breath out can be calming and great for recovery or practice, when we’re working hard, the only purpose of the out breath is to empty the lungs as fully and quickly as possible so we can take another in breath. So a breathing pattern of deep, slower breath in and shorter, quicker breath out is beneficial and any kind of fast, shallow in and out panting or gasping should be avoided at all costs.
However, many physical activities impose restrictions on breathing patterns and technique and necessitate a deviation from the ideal. One example is having your head in water while swimming, which necessitates a quick inhale and slower exhale.
Breathing technique must also account for the timing of the movement. Rowing, for example, requires a slower inhale and a faster exhale. Movements like swinging a golf club or jumping may require momentarily holding the breath.
Breathing in time to the movement helps get you into a rhythm which will keep the heart rate lower for longer and stave off fatigue. Rhythmic breathing can be as simple as breathing out during the effort phase of a movement and inhaling during the recovery phase, as you would for training with weights.
Rhythmic breathing is also a great way to improve endurance activities such as running, by using the footsteps to time the breath. When running at a slower pace, try a slow breath in for four or five steps and the same for the breath out; when increasing the pace, keep the inhale at four or five steps and shorten the exhale to three steps then two steps. At full intensity, a 3:2 step inhale/exhale ratio or even a 2:1 ratio will be required. The exact number of footsteps is not critical and will vary depending on the individual and fitness level.
Whatever the activity, monitoring our inhale/exhale ratio will help maintain relaxed rhythmic breathing under stress, which is when it matter most.
Tony Watts is a 50-something-year-old fitness fan who teaches cardiovascular and weight/resistance training classes at gyms on Grand Cayman.