Picture this: A gym-goer on the treadmill is breathing hard, maybe even grunting, as he pushes the pace, well beyond his threshold. His strained facial expression reads “this hurts,” but he’s so determined, it doesn’t matter. Another person, down the aisle on the elliptical trainer, is quietly working, too, and about to break a sweat, but nothing like the buckets coming off the treadmill guy. Her face is calm, neutral, and equally focused.
If this sounds like something you’ve witnessed or experienced—whether you’re the one on the treadmill or the elliptical—you might have wondered, is the person who’s audibly panting getting a better, more effective workout than the one who’s silently chugging along?
Noiseless exercisers can continue to breath easy: The answer is a clear-cut “no.” Recent studies in sports science reveal that labored, erratic, or rapid breathing may actually hinder your movements and even cause harm.
“A cardiovascular reflex is activated when the breathing muscles are forced to work hard during exercise that restricts blood flow to the limbs,” says Alison McConnell, Ph.D., the world’s leading expert on breath training and author of Breathe Strong. McConnell also points out that this type of breathing compromises the stabilizing muscles in the trunk, which translates to weaker limb movements. This puts you at risk for injuries, especially in high-impact sports like running, where each step must absorb as much as three times one’s body weight.
“The diaphragm, [the main abdominal muscle below the lungs], is an important contributor to the increase in intra-abdominal pressure that stiffens the trunk and stabilizes the spine,” McConnell says. Without a strong and engaged core to manage the impact, runners feel the effects in their knees, hips, and back, confirms a 2010 study published in the journal Spine.
Related: Is Your Breathing Pattern Normal?
The risk of getting injured is only the half of it. You might also unintentionally trigger the fight-or-flight response with this kind of intense breathing, too, which can really make exercising stressful. When inhalations are rapid and shallow, called apical breathing, only the lungs’ upper lobes inflate. As a result, you might set off a stress response, a hormonal shift associated with feelings of anxiousness and panic, explains chiropractor John Douillard, the former director of player development for the New Jersey Nets NBA team and author of Body, Mind and Sport.
To avoid getting sidelined or going into panic mode, try slowing and deepening each round of breath so that the diaphragm is fully engaged. This form of breathing pulls oxygenated air into the lower lungs and activates the relaxation response, which elicits feelings of calmness, control, and focus. A body that is relaxed and calm performs more powerfully and efficiently.
This is where learning to breathe mindfully may not only improve the ease of your movements, but also greatly boost your fitness outcomes, too. This is especially important when exercising at high intensities. “As your rib cage opens and becomes more flexible [as a result of diaphragmatic breathing], the breath rate will slow down rather than speed up while you increase your workload,” Douillard says. This is particularly helpful for those exercising to lose weight since it keeps the body in fat-burning (aerobic) zone.
Use the following three mindful breathing techniques to enhance your workout. Practice them separately for at least one week each. Then employ all three together to create better fitness outcomes with less stress and exertion, and more ease and efficiency.
1. Breathe like a baby.
We’re born masters at belly breathing. But as we age, a stressful and sedentary lifestyle leads us to become habitual shallow breathers. To breathe like your first day on earth again, inhale slowly, extending the belly outward. This helps draw the breath into the lower lungs and extend the diaphragm. By fully inflating the lungs, you’re also taking in the maximum amount of oxygen possible with each breath. As you exhale, the belly draws in and the diaphragm moves upward. Since it may feel backwards to breathe this way, practice belly breathing while walking before using it in workouts until it feels more natural.
2. Find a rhythm.
During aerobic exercise—such as cycling, swimming and running—aligning your breath with your movements in a regular pattern creates more ease, flow, and aerobic efficiency. Do you have one area of your body that is chronically more tight, sore, or injured? That achy side is probably taking the brunt of mechanical stress during exercise. Rhythmic breathing can help equalize your movements and prevent favoring one side over the other.
Depending on the type of exercise, the pattern may be three beats (such as foot strikes during running) for the inhale and two beats for the exhale. This 3:2 pattern, for example, alternates between feet as they hit the ground at the beginning of the exhalation, which is when your core is weakest. This more evenly distributes the landing impact stress across both sides of your body, reports a 2013 study published in PLoS ONE. This technique also keeps you calm and relaxed even when performing difficult or high-intensity movements.
“Rhythmic breathing creates a pathway to a deep centeredness,” says exercise physiologist and running coach Budd Coates, author of Running on Air: The Revolutionary Way to Run Better by Breathing Smarter. “In the martial arts, this inner connection and centeredness allows more immediate and precise control of the physical body,” adds Coates, a four-time qualifier for the U.S. Marathon Olympic Trials.
3. Use only the nose.
Breathing only through the nose during exercise has many benefits. The snout’s smaller, narrower shape forces pressured, slower inhalations, which give the lungs more time to extract oxygen from the air you breathe. Plus, a study published in the Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport showed that nostril-only breathing during exercise mitigates the effects of exercise-induced asthma, allowing those with asthma to exercise harder while breathing easier. Keeping your mouth shut during exercise feels hard at first (a bit like you’re suffocating) and forces you to slow your pace until your nasal passages expand and adapt, which they will! When starting, perform nasal-only breathing in 15-second increments, then gradually build up to several minutes at a time.