Breathing: your ally in improving athletic performance

While working out, we often feel as if we're running out of breath, and this is most probably because we are not breathing properly. Did you know that a good breathing technique can enhance your performance?

Breathing is fundamental to any activities we pursue, but as a matter of fact we hardly notice its quality when we eat, walk or talk, and especially when we exercise. It happens that at times, during physical activities, we feel as if we are running out of breath: this unpleasant sensation almost always comes on before muscle exhaustion, which is primarily due to a reduced oxygen intake. Indeed, when the lungs can't meet the skeletal muscle's demand for oxygen, a neurochemical reflex comes into play, reducing the influx of oxygen to peripheral muscles and as such creating that feeling of tiredness and muscle ache. What happens is that peripheral oxygenation is blocked, which unavoidably leads to a decreased intensity of the activity performed. By extending our breathing stamina, however, our performance capacities will reach the same limits as the muscles involved in the specific exercise. 
This is why training our respiratory muscles delays fatigue and increases stamina. Moreover, learning how to breathe properly can have beneficial effects on our body and mind.  

Breathe better to run better

Let's take, for instance, the relation between breathing and running: whether running outdoors or on the treadmill, all first-time runners get out of breath. But what are the secrets to breathing well while running? First of all, it's essential to learn the difference between thoracic and diaphragmatic breathing.

Thoracic breathing uses only the upper part of your lungs, and the air inhaled stays in the lungs for a short time only, preventing them to fully refill and so reducing the oxygen intake. On the hand, diaphragmatic breathing, also called abdominal breathing, allows for the maximum amount of oxygen to enter the body. The diaphragm is the main respiratory muscle and allows the rib cage to expand and contract naturally and with little effort. This type of breathing is extremely important when running, as it optimises the effort being made by reducing the build-up of lactic acid or the classic side stitch typically experienced by those who don't work out regularly.

To experiment with diaphragmatic breathing, just lie on your back and place your hands on your stomach: inhale and exhale as deeply as you can, until you see your hands lifting and lowering. It might be difficult at first, but with a bit of training this type of breathing will soon feel natural, and it's very beneficial. The goal of the exercise is to focus the attention only on the stomach's expansion while breathing.

Is it best to breathe through your nose or your mouth?

When the body is under a lot of strain, it needs more oxygen and by breathing through the mouth we can take more oxygen in. Indeed, we all know that as the activity gets more intense, it's no longer enough to just breathe through the nose. Therefore, the best way of breathing when running is both through the nose and the mouth. Finally, as far as the breathing rate is concerned, we should not believe that it's necessary to force it when running; on the contrary, the best way is to breathe as naturally as possible.

 The role of nutrition

Athletic performance is not only enhanced by training the muscles involved in breathing: nutrition also plays an important part. Breathing and nutrition are, after all, interconnected processes: by breathing we take oxygen in, which, via the digestive system, is then used to oxidise the nutrients contained in the food we eat, creating the energy we need to be alive. Breathing deeply and correctly means that our body has an adequate provision of oxygen to create the maximum amount of energy from the food we eat and to keep us healthy.

Air and food, properly transformed and used, give the body all the energy required to meet the needs of a living creature. We can't change the quality of the air we breathe, but we can certainly choose the most suitable quality and quantity of food to meet our needs.

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