Breathing for Endurance Athletes

Breathing is easy right?! If your reading this there is a good chance your doing it right now…hopefully! As endurance athletes, proper breathing is extremely important and can lead to increased performance. If you haven’t thought about how you are breathing during your workouts and races, starting to think about how you breathe might help to gain a little extra speed.

First, a fact about respiration that is important to our discussion. Our drive to breath is not from a lack of oxygen but from excess carbon dioxide in the blood (source) and improving respiration is primarily about getting rid of excess CO2. Excess CO2 will decrease the pH level of the blood, leading to acidosis, and muscles fatiguing prematurely. Not a good way to reach peak performance.

The first step to improving your breathing is to be conscious of your breathing especially during hard efforts. Gasping and panting like a doggie will just hyperventilate you and will not provide maximum oxygen to the blood, nor remove as much CO2. You want to strive for controlled deep breaths with strong exhalations. If you concentrate on breathing out forcefully you will get rid of more CO2 and your body will naturally bring more oxygen in as well.

Once you are feeling comfortable controlling your breathing while doing hard efforts, the next step to improving your respiration is to concentrate on belly breathing. In yoga this is also called low breathing and is also referred to as diaphragmatic breathing or abdominal breathing. This is basically breathing by expanding your belly on inhalation and contracting on exhalation. The primary advantage of this is that more air is taken in when inhaling due to increased movement of the lungs and the fact that the lower lobes of the lungs have a larger capacity than the upper lobes.

That belly isn’t all german fritters, Ulrich was a great belly breather.

I found it easier to begin belly breathing by practicing at rest before learning how to use it while exercising. Practicing belly breathing also can help you relax and provide a general sense of well being. Both are very good things for recovery.

Belly Breathing Practice

  1. Start by laying on your back on a comfortable surface with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place both hands on your belly, one on top of the other, just above your belly button.
  3. Inhale deep, trying to push your hands as high as possible. If you find it hard to raise your hands very much, try applying light pressure with your hands to provide a little extra resistance for your diaphragm to push against.
  4. Hold for a second and exhale forcefully, letting your hands naturally drop. Try to pull your belly button to your spine but don’t push your hands down to exhale.
  5. Once your comfortable doing this laying down, practice it in a sitting position keeping your back straight, shoulders back.
  6. When you are comfortable in the sitting position, start working on this breathing technique while training. With practice it will start to become second nature while training and racing.

Simply practicing this technique frequently can make a big difference if you do it on a regular basis. This practice is great for relieving stress, anxiety, and tension making it great to do before races if you find yourself becoming get nervous before your races.

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