We take in air about 20,000 times a day. If you are an active person, this number can reach 50,000. Speaking of numbers, thousands of liters of air pass through our lungs every 24 hours. As you read this article, your lungs are working hard to expel 70% of your body’s waste in the form of gases such as carbon dioxide.
Although these numbers are important, many people continue to ignore the importance of proper breathing during exercise. Usually during a workout, people focus on things like the number of repetitions, a successful series or checking their smartwatch and feel happy that it shows that there is only one kilometer left until the end of the run. Among all this, proper breathing seems to lose importance.
The good news is that with good practice, anyone can learn to breathe properly. In this article you will learn everything you need to know about proper breathing during exercise and the reason it is so important.
How does breathing work during exercise?
To describe the whole process of breathing will be very complicated, and extremely unnecessary in this case, so I will mention only the most important facts. To understand the basics of breathing, it is enough to know that when you inhale through the nose and mouth, air gradually passes through the trachea and lungs and through the millions of small particles called alveoli. They are like small “containers” that help to separate oxygen from carbon dioxide. The exchange of gases takes place in the millions of alveoli, the inhaled oxygen leaves them and moves to the heart, brain and other muscles, and the carbon dioxide is exhaled with the help of red blood cells. As mentioned in the introduction, this process is repeated 17,000 to 25,000 times a day in adults, which usually depends on their physical activity and lifestyle. [1-2]
Thus, with each inhalation, you take in the oxygen that the body undoubtedly needs to function. The more you move, the more oxygen you need, which proportionally increases carbon dioxide levels. If this gas is in large amounts in the blood, the number of hydrogen ions also increases, leading to a slight decrease in blood pH. I mention it because low pH levels during physical activity are associated with more frequent breathing.
The main reason for shortness of breath during sports is the need for oxygen, but also the effort to expel carbon dioxide from your body. The air you breathe during exercise is (only) about 21% oxygen and up to 78% nitrogen, in combination with traces of helium or hydrogen. The lungs try to exchange about 4 to 5% oxygen for the carbon dioxide they exhale.
Exercise and the respiratory system
My neighbor decided to start running. I knew he was a longtime smoker, so when I asked him why he did it, I already knew the answer. He replied succinctly and with a smile that he wanted to stretch his lungs. But regular exercise will not increase the volume of your lungs. If it were possible, everyone would add at least one more workout to their weekly schedule.
What you can do for yourself and, which is very important, is to train, because training increases the efficiency of the respiratory system, and the more efficiently the body delivers oxygen to the muscles through proper breathing, the harder you will train and the more you will encounter few difficulties on the way to your goals. At the same time, exercise increases the capacity of the lungs, and with it the amount of oxygen they can retain increases. This is one of the reasons you want to learn proper breathing during a workout.
Let’s take a closer look at why this is so. The average lung moves about 0.5 liters of air with calm breathing. With more vigorous training, such as running, this value jumps up to 6 times, ie up to 3 liters, bearing in mind that the capacity of the lungs in a heavier man is 6 liters and decreases with age. Thus, it becomes clear that the ability to work on your breathing during training plays an important role in your training plan.
Do you use your diaphragm? You should do it!
With each inhalation or exhalation, the volume of the lungs changes, and with it the position of the thoracic spine, as well as the ribs, pelvis and shoulders. You need to realize that your breathing affects the level of difficulty of your workout. For example, the pain that occurs during running, usually located to the right below the ribs, is caused by improper use of the diaphragm.
The diaphragm is a muscle located in the lower part of the lungs, between the chest and the abdominal cavity. It has the shape of a dome and plays an important role in the breathing process. At the same time, many factors, such as stress and poor posture, lead many adults not to use their diaphragm while breathing, which is very bad. In this case, breathing becomes shallower because it takes place only in the chest cavity. Heart rate as well as blood pressure increase and you will certainly feel the effects of improper breathing during more intense workouts. Your body will not be able to get the amount of oxygen it needs. If you’ve ever seen a man unable to catch his breath after running to catch the bus, now you know the reason.
Diaphragmatic breathing has benefits that you will definitely appreciate during exercise:
- Delivers enough oxygen to the muscles, thus slowing down fatigue and exhaustion
- Reduces the speed and intensity of breathing, thus saving energy
- Helps activate the deep stabilizing system (abdominal muscles)
- Prevents abdominal muscle pain and unpleasant side pain
What is VO₂ Max and what is its role?
Before focusing on exercises for proper breathing technique, it is good to find out about the importance of oxygen consumption. First of all, let’s talk about the VO₂ Max indicator, which shows the maximum amount of oxygen that the body can use during physical activity. It is true that the higher this value, the more efficient your body is and the more able it is to remove the appearance of fatigue over time, and thus its performance improves. So you should breathe easily while running. In short, VO₂ Max can be defined as a performance indicator.
VO₂ Max is often measured while walking or running on the fitness trail and is calculated as oxygen consumption in milliliters per minute per kilogram of body weight. Your level of fitness, as well as age and gender can play an important role. Men usually have a higher value of oxygen consumption than women.
The lungs can be compared to a phone battery. Compared to older models, newer phones charge faster and last longer because they have more power. You should know that after the thirtieth anniversary, VO₂ Max decreases by about 2% per year. Still, you can achieve a lot with exercise to maintain at least an average VO₂ Max level, which is about 45 ml / kg / min for active men and about 35 ml / kg / min for women.
Do you have to inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth?
Anyone who has tried high-intensity aerobic exercise knows that breathing through the nose is very difficult when the heart rate is very high. Why is this so? The capillaries in the nasal cavity serve as a filter for allergens and bacteria, and the mucus, which is also present in the cavity, retains various small particles. The nasal flow warms the air and helps to moisten through the mucous membrane.
Because the nose is a natural filter, you can take in more air through your mouth at once, which is why many people instinctively start breathing through their mouths during exercise. Breathing through the nose does not significantly affect performance, but it can be helpful in reducing the rate of breathing, which is especially helpful for you during yoga and relaxation exercises that aim to improve your overall mobility and your body’s ability to soothes. But we’ll get there in a moment.
The difference and importance of breathing through the nose and mouth are less important than the frequency and duration of inhalations. We have already mentioned why it is important to breathe through the diaphragm during exercise, so let’s just add that fast and shallow breathing through the chest can lead to dizziness, a feeling of exhaustion and poor performance.
How to breathe during exercise?
Deep breaths can lower your blood pressure, increase relaxation and can play an important role in the way your body breaks down sodium. On the other hand, rapid breathing can lead to an accelerated heart rate and increased levels of carbon dioxide and lactic acid.
It may be harder at first to focus on proper breathing during a workout, but if you make this process automatic, over time you will achieve:
- Reduce the amount of air you need during a workout to inhale and exhale.
- Reduce carbon dioxide production
- Improving blood circulation and heart health
- Increase efficiency during training and so you will achieve better results
- More efficient fat burning
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1. Aerobic activities / running
Studies show that proper breathing technique plays an important role in finding the optimal form of running and speed that will be satisfactory in the long run. Because the pressure caused by gravity is exerted on the diaphragm and the organs around it during running, synchronizing the breath with the dynamics of running is very important. The more constant the breathing, the more hydrogen enters the body. This dilates the blood vessels and increases the oxygen in the blood that enters the heart, making it work more efficiently.
The ratio of 3: 2 is considered optimal, which means that you should take oxygen every three steps and exhale every two steps. However, there are people who prefer a more balanced ratio of 2: 2. In any case, in the beginning you will need to slow down to achieve greater concentration, which you will need to learn a good breathing technique. After a few runs, you should learn to take in more oxygen and at the same time get rid of carbon dioxide. Over time, thanks to the fact that you will build endurance and that your circulatory system will adjust to the workout, you will begin to breathe less and your heart rate will reach the intensity of the workout. Remember that in all cases, proper breathing and regularity are a priority. Whether you breathe through your nose or mouth, take this as a bonus.
2. Strength training
You may already know how to breathe properly during strength training. I guess you’ve already heard of concentric and eccentric phases and that in the first one the air has to be released from the lungs, and in the second one you can (again) breathe properly. Breath control during strength training can help you lift heavier weights and develop more strength with less effort.
Let’s illustrate what has been said with the help of one of the most basic exercises – squats. Inhale in the eccentric phase when squatting. Then exhale in the concentric phase as you stretch your legs and return to the starting position. Unless you want to break the weight record with which you train or you are not one of those strong men, such as Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson or Petr Petráš, who train at the limit of human capabilities, you should definitely avoid holding your breath. This is a common mistake that can cause high blood pressure, which goes hand in hand with dizziness or nausea. This will definitely not help you achieve your fitness goals.
3. Yoga / Stretching
You have probably already seen Tibetan monks in the movies. They devote a lot of time and effort to yoga and manage to immerse themselves. Yoga has become a way of life for many people nowadays. Extremely long inhales and exhales are best for this type of exercise.
The reason is very simple. Longer and deeper breaths, as well as exhalations, can help you increase your range of motion and, as I mentioned, make you feel your body much better. If you stop breathing during your warm-up, your body will stiffen and simply block, preventing you from stretching and increasing blood flow to the muscles you actually want to achieve. On the other hand, regular and long inhales and exhales will reduce stress and help you work on your body more consciously. For stretching or yoga, inhales / exhales of 4 to 5 seconds or longer are recommended.
4. High Intensity Interval Training / HIIT
With this type of training, especially in the beginning, you can easily lose your breath. If you do high-intensity abdominal presses for 45 seconds, you will probably start breathing through your mouth towards the end of the series to deal with the lack of oxygen as quickly as possible. But you should know that this actually lowers the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood and inhibits the body’s ability to release oxygen to the cells. Breath control and breathing rate are important in HIIT training. If you are short of air, stop for a while while you can continue. It is important not to overestimate your strength and to distribute it properly so that the short phases of sprints, squats and other workouts do not alternate with endless periods of rest.
According to a 2017 study, athletes who engage in meditation have an advantage in HIIT. It is clear that those who meditate regularly know how to work with their breath and thus manage to control it during high-intensity interval training.
What is the lesson of all this?
Exercise improves and supports the performance of the respiratory muscles, and the more efficiently the body supplies oxygen to the muscles, with the help of proper breathing, the better you will be able to focus on your training. It doesn’t matter if it’s running, strength training or yoga. Believe that no matter what your goal is, proper breathing can affect your workout and take it to the next level.
Keep in mind that diaphragmatic breathing (and not only that) during exercise has undeniable advantages; delivers more oxygen to the muscles, reduces the speed and intensity of breathing, so you have more energy, and last but not least, helps reduce abdominal muscle pain, as well as unpleasant side pain.
In your next workout, don’t just focus on the number of reps and sets or the miles you want to run. Also think about the way you should breathe. People often do not look at the forest because of the trees, which makes the path to your goal more difficult. If your article has helped you understand how proper breathing can improve your workout and how to breathe during a workout, share it with your friends so they can get closer to their fitness goals.