Breathing is one of our most vital functions, and yet, a large majority of people do not pay any attention to it. As an athlete or active individual, it is especially important to be conscious of your breathing; proper breathing can make the difference between silver and gold!
Does Breathing Really Matter?
Sadly, our cultural upbringing has led to the development of harmful habits that inhibit proper breathing. School and work demand that we spend the majority of our day sitting, possibly leaning over a desk or a computer, and we end up slouching much more than we realize. Poor posture closes off the diaphragm and forces us to take shorter, faster breaths that barely reach the chest. This type of breathing is considered “shallow breathing” and it can hurt both mental and physical health.
When you step out of the classroom or office and into a gym or game, your breathing and postural habits will carry over. Thus, if you can master proper breathing and posture outside of your athletic activities, the improved habits will also carry over and significantly improve your athletic performance.
What is Pranayama?
Pranayama (also called conscious breathing, diaphragmatic breathing, or yoga breathing) is a form of breathing that engages the diaphragm to carry inhaled oxygen beyond the short reach of shallow breathing. If you practice yoga, you may have already heard of and begun practicing pranayama. It allows oxygen to reach the entirety of your lungs, maximizing the amount of oxygen that enters the blood and the brain.
Diaphragmatic breathing engages all systems of your body (cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, lymph, immune, digestive, and respiratory) and maximizes the efficiency of your oxygen intake. Using pranayama, you can fill your lungs with 4500 mL of air, while shallow breathing only brings about 350 mL of air into your lungs!
Pranayama and the Body
During strenuous exercise, your muscles are constantly contracting and require large amounts of oxygen delivered to them. If they muscles do not receive an adequate supply of oxygen, they begin performing anaerobic respiration, which allows them to contract without oxygen. The down side to this process is that it produces lactic acid that can build up in your muscles, leading to painful cramps and soreness that slow you down or weaken your performance. Diaphragmatic breathing can delay or altogether eliminate the need for anaerobic breathing!
The best way to master your breathing during exercise is to establish a rhythm that is comfortable, natural, and reliable. For example, a swimmer may choose to inhale during a stroke, retain it for two or three strokes, and then exhale during a stroke. A runner may use the same rhythm but line it up with their strides. Focusing on your established rhythm will ensure that you do not let your increased heart rate affect your breathing and cause you to take short and inefficient breaths.
Pranayama and the Mind
The mental benefits of pranayama are just as profound as the physical benefits! Many physical limitations are self-imposed, meaning that the body can often perform harder, faster, and longer than the mind believes it can. The body may be more than capable, but if you decide that you cannot run another mile or swim another lap or sprint to the end of the soccer field faster than an opponent, you are not going to.
Mental clarity is a major benefit of phragmatic breathing. When you focus on your breathing and become wholly aware of the engagement of your entire body, you leave no room for doubtful thoughts about your physical performance, creating a more meditative experience that ultimately leads to achievement.