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Breathe Right And Win
By Lee Frank for

Here is a guide to breathing techniques that can help you when exercising or competing in your next sports activity!

So you want to be Number One - edging out the competition by achieving your absolute athletic best? Well don't hold your breath. Unless you're applying state-of-the-art breath techniques, like those employed by world-class athletes. Just the way a fine-tuned carburetor regulates air into an engine to improve performance, you can precisely control the flow of air into your body - in order to compete at your peak. Here's a practical guide to these techniques, revealed by champion athletes and their trainers.

Running: Breathing techniques are very specialized, because even athletes within the same sport, but competing in different events, have different breathing requirements. Unlike distance runners, sprinters aren't aiming for aerobic fitness. "Someone who runs the 100 meter dash may want to take one breath and go," says Bill Dellinger, head coach of the University of Oregon men's track team and Olympic runner in 1956,1960, and 1964, when he won the bronze. "For anything longer than 100 meters, you want to breath in for a four-count and out for a four-count. If you're running faster, it might be a three count. If you're running faster than that, a two. The rhythm is even, so that you're not panting. In order to suck down enough air, you need to breathe through both your nose and mouth. And when you exhale, you puff out your cheeks. You do this so you can retain some residual air which you need in order to have a better exchange of oxygen."

World-renown Brazilian track coach Luiz De Oliveira has trained champion runners like Mary Decker and Olympic gold and silver medalist, Joaquim Cruz. De Oliveira claims his breath-holding drill allows middle and long distance runners to improve their endurance by adapting to increased levels of lactic acid. "I have a breath-holding drill that I use once a week," says De Oliveira . "I try to drive the lactic acid up quicker than it would in a regular race. That way, my runners get used to it. What I have them do is take a running start, then inhale and hold their breath when they hit the starting line, then they run for 25 meters. They work on technique while holding their breath. When they reach the finish line, they exhale and breathe normally."

De Oliveira then has them jog back and do the same drill for 30 meters, then 35 - all the way to 90 meters. "Everybody's capable of holding their breath for a very long time. But you've got to do three of these sets. By the final set, you're going to become very very tired. It's hard to hold your breath at that point. But if you use my drill, you will see results."

De Oliveira has another drill where his 400 and 800 meter runners hold their breath for just the last 30 meters, simulating the end of a race when they're most tired. At this point, they have to pick up their speed and work on their form. "The most important thing you can do in the race," says De Oliveira, "no matter how exhausted you get - is to maintain your form."

Swimming: Breath training is trickier when it comes to swimmers, since their breathing pattern is regulated by when, during the strokes, the swimmers breathe. Typically, swimmers try to inhale every three or four strokes. Jane Cappaert, a sports science biomechanist with the Olympic swimming team, says that swimmers will improve their training by staying underwater for as long as they can. "It will help them maximize their oxygen consumption from each breath," explains Cappaert. "This is called hypoxic training. And it seems to translate into better performance when a swimmer is low on oxygen during a race."

Cappaert says the way to train for this is to swim underwater, push off from the pool's wall on your back, doing a dolphin kick. "Keep your arms overhead, torpedo-style. Once you're able to make it to the other side, try increasing your speed. Sprinters train by holding their breath 25 yards, flip turning, then coming back 25. Another hypoxic exercise is to swim freestyle, holding your breath for six strokes, then increasing it to seven, on up, in order to put you in that hypoxic state."

Tennis: "Tennis is a lot like basketball," says USTA coach Nick Saviano. "You're not only working hard physically, but you require fine motor skills. So breathing becomes particularly important in controlling your heart rate and recovering. Your goal is to be in your optimum physical state to execute your next point." Saviano has worked with most of the top American pros, including Jim Courier, Todd Martin, and Michael Chang.

"A match at the French open might mean five hours of intense competition," says Saviano. But even if you're just playing a weekend match with the guys, Saviano says the key to winning is recovery, what you're doing between points to prepare you to win the next one. "A smart player is going to make use of this time. You should take some very deep breaths, easy and even, not forcing any air in or out. At the same time, focus in on a small object. This concentration, combined with your breathing, will bring you heart rate down - so you'll relax and play with your best coordination. Experienced players often focus in on their strings. You ever notice that the pros are looking at their rackets all the time?"

Saviano recommends a breath technique to use when you hit the ball: "Blow out a deep breath on contact," he says, "like you're blowing-up a balloon. Some players actually grunt. This helps your muscles relax and also increases your power." Saviano points out this technique is borrowed from karate where it is similarly used to release explosive energy.

Do breath-holding techniques have a place in tennis? Saviano says that when you hold your breath, your muscles tighten up and your coordination turns to mush: "Holding your breath in tennis is a sure-fire technique for poor performance."

Weight-lifting: "I've watched people hold their breath while doing squats or overhead presses," says Lee Haney, former Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia. " And I've seen these people become dizzy, get nose bleeds, and even pass-out. There's no oxygen going to the body when you hold your breath, so I never recommend it."

"Working with weights, the technique that should be used when doing any type of pushing movement, is to exhale as you thrust and inhale during the negative part of the movement. With pulling exercises, it's just the opposite: exhale on the pull. Just remember to exhale on the exertion, pushing all your breath out from deep down, much like in karate when you go to strike an opponent." The one exception to this rule, according to Haney, are exercises that have a very slow movement and don't call for much energy. "For example," he says, "seated concentration curls. It doesn't matter how you breathe, as long as you don't hold your breath. But anytime you're going to have to spend a lot of energy, anytime you have to grunt to complete the movement - the breathing technique must be correct."

Scuba diving: "The one breath technique I know a lot of civilian divers do is skip breathing," says Navy SEAL's diving instructor, Lieutenant Mike White. "They'll breathe deeply, then hold their breath to conserve air. Holding your breath is something you never ever want to do." If these divers change their depths by even a few feet," White darkly warns, "the compressed air they're breathing will expand and can rip a hole in their lungs where it will bubble into the blood stream and possibly kill them."

Once you learn to breathe with your diaphragm, practice it all the time until it becomes a reflex.

There is a breath technique that is often confused with skip breathing. This is when divers wear very little weight but rather use their lungs to control their buoyancy. At full capacity, your lungs carry six to eight pounds of floatation, so by adjusting the amount of air you breathe, you can regulate you depth. Breathe in more deeply and you'll increase your buoyancy; breathe in less, and you'll submerge. The major technique for conserving air underwater is to breathe in as relaxed a mode as you can. Remember that breathing air underwater is different than breathing air on the surface. As you dive deeper, the density of the gas increases so you'll be working harder to breathe unless you're employing long, slow breaths . Says David Taylor, PADI Dive Master and Nitrox and Technical Diver, "That's something people don't usually catch on to until 40 or 50 dives."

Tom Mount, president of the International Association of Nitrox and Technical Divers, recommends doing a t-ai chi breath exercise: breathing in for six to eight seconds, a natural two or three seconds pause, then exhaling for six to eight seconds. "While you're doing it," Mount says, "concentrate on breathing with your diaphragm. This is the way we were born breathing. But we lose it through bad habits and our cultural upbringing. You go to school and they say, 'Chest out, shoulders up, stomach in,' that destroys diaphragmatic breathing." Mount suggests this exercise: Lie on your back, putting one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you breathe, make sure your stomach rises and not your chest. "Once you learn to breathe with your diaphragm," says Mount, "practice it all the time until it becomes a reflex."

Diaphragmatic breathing is the only way to get air into the lower third of your lungs, which is where two-thirds of the blood supply is. This breath technique will increase the efficiency of your lungs. It will enhance your ability to metabolize oxygen. Breathe with your diaphragm - and you'll improve your performance and endurance in any sport.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in a article on Water which describes various health benefits of drinking water.

Body Mind Spirit || Breathing For Lung Health


I am a currently a masters swimmer and used to compete in Triathlons approx 10yrs ago. I swim approx 4 to 8k a week depending on available time etc.

Approx 15yrs ago I used to suffer symptons similar or akin to excercise induced asthma this was only whilst swimming and not during running or cycling. I did see a respiritory specialist and various inhalers were recommended but I didn't want to go down the path of drugs. I used to control the hyperventing sympons by either slowing my swimming pace down or changing my stroke so I could breathe more, problem is I can never really swim at hard effort unless its 25metres or less otherwise my attacks will start. As you can imagine I can't swim longer distances at hard efforts so I feel I cannot improve my times and fitness etc. My swimming pace is nearly all at comfort pace or cruise.

Some of are training uses hypoxic methods and I could swim every 9 strokes quite comfortably, now I seem to only manage 4.

Two years ago I suffered multiple Pulmomary Embolisms in my right lung and various checks were made but no evidence to the cause of them. After approx 8 months on Warferin I'm now not on any medication. Apparently my right lung has been permanently damaged but not sure by how much and if this means I cannot improve my stamina and swimming ability. I would like to enter races and swim open water events but this Hyperventilation could be brought on by the cold water as well. Any advice would be much appreciated.

Regards Andy

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