Breathe in, breathe out: It's worth practicing

By: Wina Sturgeon McClatchy Newspapers
August 21, 2014 Updated: August 21, 2014 at 8:40 am

Breathing seems like a simple thing: Inhale, exhale, repeat.

That might be true if you're sitting down watching television, but it isn't true if you're an athlete or even if you're merely doing something athletic. If you're active, the secret to success is to work on your breathing.

Many athletes think that practicing breathing is only for those who follow a spiritual discipline. But winning a competition - or even biking up a hill faster than the friends you're riding with - depends on the amount of oxygen you can take in. Oxygen intake varies, depending on how you breathe.

Champion marathoner Alberto Salazar summed it up when he said: "The less oxygen you have, for whatever reason, the more you have to rely on stored blood sugars, and eventually you run out of them."

Unless there's deliberate concentration and a repeated practice of the depth and pace of your breath, it will often change according to circumstances. For example, those who don't pay constant attention to their breathing might feel the need for more oxygen during a sprint or tough section of an endurance event. As a result, they start panting, taking short and gasping breaths. This kind of breathing barely inflates the lungs. It also doesn't take in much oxygen. You'll know it by a knot of pain in the diaphragm, when the gasping becomes uncontrollable, and suddenly you can't go on.

Worse is when you actually forget to breathe. That happens even to elite athletes, especially in sprint events. Athletes spring from the start, without realizing they haven't taken a deep breath for three or more seconds. By that time, they are already in oxygen deficit and their energy drops off a cliff.

Instead of practicing technique when playing your sport, do a session where you practice your breathing instead.

First, before starting your activity, stand still for several minutes while taking deep, steady breaths. This also will help calm your mind so the action to follow doesn't get distracting. Choose a comfortable cadence that allows you to take in a good amount of air, filling your lungs. These are relaxed breaths that might be impossible to maintain during strenuous activity. But the goal is to get accustomed to the feeling of your lungs inflating, so you never start the energy-ending sequence of airless panting.

Two rules to remember: Breathe through your nose and mouth at the same time, and never blow out more air than you're taking in. The biggest athletic breathing mistake is forcefully pushing out used air while not taking a similar amount in.

Think of it as a kind of muscle memory. Athletes learn physical technique by practicing the moves over and over again, learning muscle patterns so they don't panic and make mistakes.

It's the same thing with breathing. Sync your breathing so you inhale and exhale the same amount, taking in what you need to keep going. Find a comfortable pace for your breathing.

Practice your breathing pace while doing your sport, but also create practice session with other sports. Run sprints while concentrating on how you're breathing. Ride a bike up a steep hill and learn how to breathe so you don't allow your breathing to get out of sync.

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