Are You Breathing Properly When You Work Out?

We obsess about what we eat and agonise over which exercises deliver the most bang for their buck, but could proper breathing technique be the marginal gain you’ve overlooked?

woman breathing after work out

We do it 22,000 times per day. Regulated by the autonomic nervous system, breathing is a subconscious bodily action that gives us life, oxygenates our blood and allows us to metabolise food to create energy. We realise how vital it is when we exercise, as our chest tightens, pulse quickens and muscles begin screaming for replenishment. 

So what if you’ve been doing it all wrong all this time? What if you’ve been running with a handicap, or lifting with one hand tied behind your proverbial back, self-limiting your full athletic potential? And just what could you achieve if you became more efficient at it every time you worked out? It’s time we breathed fresh life into the lost art of breathing.

What happens to our breathing when we're working out?

There’s no one-way-suits-all approach to breathing when working out. Different types of exercise and varying intensity levels demand different techniques. Fundamentally, however, effective breathing is governed by the levels of O2 and CO2 in the body at any one time, says Livvy Probert, co-founder and head of science at employee wellness provider HAWQ.

“As we exercise, working muscles use up oxygen and produce carbon dioxide,” she tells Huel. “Increased levels of carbon dioxide are detected by the brain, which increases our ventilation rate to promote gas exchange and supply the muscles with more oxygenated blood.” 

Holding your breath during exercise or panting too quickly can disturb this delicate equilibrium and have a knock-on effect for other vital bodily functions, including an increased risk of dehydration. “Holding the breath will deplete oxygen levels because the lungs aren’t receiving oxygenated air to replenish that used up by the muscles,” Probert says. 

Conversely, when we breathe too quickly (hyperventilation), we breathe out more carbon dioxide, reducing levels within the blood. “Reduced carbon dioxide levels actually limit the amount of oxygen that can be taken up by the cells in the body, regardless of how much oxygen is available.” This is known as the Bohr effect

“Lower levels of carbon dioxide increase haemoglobin's affinity for oxygen, making it harder to unload oxygen at the working muscles,” she says, adding that poor breathing technique can also result in not effectively engaging the diaphragm and over-activating the pelvic floor.

man breathing while working out

How you should breathe when working out

If holding your breath and hyperventilating in the gym are how not to do it, how should you breathe? “Generally breathing through the nose is optimal,” says Probert. That’s unless you’re exercising at such high intensities that you think you simply can’t inflate your lungs quickly enough with your nose.

Craig Seaton, breathwork coach for fitness studio BLOK, says the most common mistake people make when working out is breathing through the mouth, especially as intensity increases. “It may seem counterintuitive but there are huge benefits,” he tells Huel. “Nasal breathing filters the air you inhale and, crucially, it allows more oxygen to reach your muscles.” 

It does this, he says, by helping to release nasal nitric oxide (NO), which is created in the sinuses. NO is a vasodilator, meaning it widens blood vessels to improve circulation and transport more O2 and CO2  around the body. “The goal is to breathe in and out through the nose, but you can begin with breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth as you build up to full nasal breathing,” says Seaton.

When your workout intensity does start to climb, Probert says focusing on breathing slowly and in time with the exercise can help improve performance and reduce fatigue levels. “Your breathing should be slow and deep. On the inhalation your belly should expand, not just your chest. And you should start to see tangible improvements in performance.” 

Indicators include noticing a reduced rate of perceived exertion (RPE) when repeating workouts, being able to lift heavier weights, or perform more sets and reps. “If you use a smart watch, you might see a decrease in your resting heart rate, lower heart rates during cardio sessions or a reduction in your breathing frequency at rest,” adds Probert. “And you might notice yourself breathing through your nose subconsciously.”

How to adapt your breathing to the workout

While holding the breath is discouraged, Probert says controlled breathing in and out when performing static exercises like planks can lead to optimal recruitment of the diaphragm and core muscles. 

The Valsalva manoeuvre is another breathing technique commonly used by powerlifters and Olympic lifters to increase intra-abdominal pressure, helping stabilise the spine. It involves holding in a big breath, closing the windpipe at the throat as if when you start to cough, and forcing pressure in your belly as if straining for the toilet.

Regardless of the workout, Seaton always recommends 5-10 minutes of deep breathing before exercise to “totally maximise the body's potential and completely oxygenate the body”. However, he says, nasal breathing really comes into its own when running. 

woman running

“Gasping for air with the mouth mimics that of a panicked, out of control state,” he says. “Slow and steady full breaths through the nose, however, have a calming effect on your body and teaches your heart and cardiovascular system to become more efficient.”

Putting it into practice, Seaton recommends following these three steps to breathe more effectively when you run:

  1. Start by taking 20 full breaths. Breathe deep in and out through the mouth, inhaling deep into the belly, breathing continuously without a pause. “This will fully oxygenate the body and open up the diaphragm,” he says. “Think of these as warm-up stretches for your lungs, the powerhouse of your workout.” 
  2. Next, as you start running, breathe through your nose as slow and steady as you can. “You may need to drop your pace as you get the hang of this practice, but you’ll soon be able to speed up as your CV system becomes stronger and more efficient,” he says.
  3. Once finished, Seaton suggests you warm down by spending 6-10 minutes focusing on alternate nostril breathing (see below) to help calm your heart rate and keep the energy flowing smoothly around your body. 

If you want to take your nostril breathing education one step further, you can also tape up your mouth when exercising (as you might have seen some runners attempt on your Instagram timeline). “This is actually a really helpful technique,” says Seaton, adding it’s also a useful trick to fix snoring (so long as you’re not congested). 

Can you boost your breathing capacity? 

Seaton teaches several breathing techniques in his breathwork classes to help boost breathing capacity. Here are three techniques you can try right now. 

Full breaths

Seaton says: “Take 20 full, deep breaths in and out through your mouth. On the last breath hold the air in your body as long as it feels comfortable, while remaining in a calm state, before exhaling and returning to normal breaths.” 

Alternate nostril breathing

Seaton says: “Gently close off your right nostril with your finger and exhale through your left nostril, then inhale through the left. Gently close off the left side to pinch the nostrils together, then open up the right side. Exhale through the right side, then inhale. Pinch the right side closed again and repeat on the left side. Follow this pattern for 6-10 minutes.” 

Balloon breathing

Seaton says: “Inhale to 30% capacity, hold for five seconds, inhale for the next 30%, hold for 5 seconds, and finally inhale all the way. Hold for five seconds, then ‘sip’ air three times through your nose. Hold for the last five seconds and release. Repeat this 8-10 times.” 

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