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Master Your Breathing to Perform Better

Toni-Ann DiSantis

Master Your Breathing to Perform Better

Breathing is a key ingredient to human function and performance. It’s a human reflex we’re born with, and it’s attached to our nervous system, which has an input and an output. If you have poor breathing patterns (input), you’ll have poor motor output, which can result in muscle compensations and even possible overuse injuries. Breathing plays a role in optimal nervous system function, proper motor function, relaxation, focus, and efficiency.

The Correct Way to Breath

There are typically two types of breathers:

1.     Diaphragmatic breathers – This is the most reflexive and natural way. We want to be good diaphragmatic breathers. In general, the rib cage should expand in a 3-D pattern, top to bottom, back to front, and to the sides.

2.     Apical breathers – Apical breathing, or upper chest breathing, can be caused by a variety of issues, including smoking, stress, poor posture, or asthma.

Mouth Versus Nose Breathing

Dr. Roy Sugarman, director of applied neuroscience for EXOS, says nose breathing has a range of performance benefits. “Breathing through your nasal passage can increase CO2 saturation in the blood and slow down your breathing — both of which create a calming effect,” he says. “It also helps warm air before it hits your lungs during cold weather workouts.”

Dr. Sugarman says that mouth breathing is associated with a host of health problems and should be avoided as best as possible. His advice is to keep the nose and sinuses healthy and the septum straight — not so easy for athletes in sports where a sudden, sideways nose-shift is common. This helps overall performance and, more importantly, helps speed up the recovery process.

Breathing Tips for Sports


There isn’t one best breathing pattern for running. For many it’s a 2:2 ratio (two steps breathe in, two steps breathe out). For others it’s 3:1. Aim for a rhythmic pattern to help your body relax and improve your body’s efficiency. Sporadic breathing makes it more difficult.


Cyclists tend to be good belly breathers because their posture on the bike limits their ability to use their chest. Similar to running, relaxed and rhythmic breathing is the goal during peddling. For instance, inhale for two pedal strokes, hold for two pedal strokes, then exhale for four pedal strokes.

High-Impact Sports

For high-impact sports, like tennis, inhale while preparing for a shot or intense action and exhale through execution to maximize stiffness and power.

High-Contact Sports

During high-contact sports, hold your breath if you know you’re going to take a hit. If you’re delivering the blow, exhale through contact.


Al Lee and Don Campbell, co-authors of "Perfect Breathing," devised a drill called performance breathing for endurance sports like swimming that involves a repetitive motion. It’s designed to help you find that sweet spot where the energy coming in balances the energy expended, and you feel that tireless high so many athletes strive for. Here’s how to do it: inhale through the nose for 2 seconds, hold for 2 seconds, and exhale through the nose for 4 seconds.


In yoga, there are many different types of breathing patterns — not just one yoga belly breath. These breathing patterns are called pranyama, an ancient Indian practice that basically means “regulation of breath.” Like meditation, breathing helps relax your tissues and calm the nervous system. Often people will hold their breath because a pose is too painful. If you’re holding your breath, you’re being too aggressive. You want an equal in and out style of breathing. For more on improving your performance through breathing, read "Performance Breathing: Does it work?"