Athletes vary their workouts by changing exercises, intensity and volume to continue making improvements in strength, speed and flexibility. However, a training program is most effective if you have the ability to recover from, and adapt to, the stress placed on your body from a workout. Lots of techniques are used to aid recovery: recovery baths, contrast showers, proper nutrition, stretching, massage and foam rolling, to name the most prominent. Here I discuss a method seldom employed, and even less seldom programmed: breathing.
Research shows that slow, deep breathing induces a calming effect on the body, decreasing everything from blood pressure to stress to nervous system activity.1 What does this mean for athletes? It means faster recovery, starting the digestive process sooner and creating stronger, faster bodies that respond better to future stress.
The nervous system’s response to training is well-documented: an excitatory effect in response to stress from exercise. The key to recovery, therefore, is the ability to switch as soon as possible from the catabolic state brought on by training (breakdown of energy sources, including muscle) to a more anabolic state (building muscle).2 The faster you can go from an excited state to a calm one, the more capable you will be of recovering from your workouts.
So, what exactly is good belly breathing? It’s basically as simple as it sounds: deep breathing into the navel. Take a deep breath into your belly through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth. Try taking longer to exhale than to inhale. An example of a good, deep breath might be a four-second inhale held for seven seconds and followed by an eight-second exhale.3 Repeat this process three to four times, letting your body calm itself, relax and adjust to the new breathing pattern.
The last piece of the breathing puzzle is programming it into your workout. Most athletes and coaches agree that the focus of the workout must be the training itself. But I would contend that taking five to 10 minutes at the end of a session for something as simple as deep belly breathing can have a huge impact on future training and performance.
One could also combine this type of breathing with a stretch (think yoga). Try a simple bar hang with slow, relaxing, rhythmic breaths. Or try a Glute Ham Hang: lie face down on a glute ham machine, hang over the edge, and let your body completely relax. This will not only readjust your breathing pattern, it will also help to decompress your spine. Every exhale should make your body relax more, your spine elongate and your mind feel zero tension.
For more training tips, check out my book, Triphasic Training: A Systematic Approach to Elite Speed and Explosive Strength Performance.
1. Chen, J.L., et. al. “Parasympathetic Nervous Activity Mirrors Recovery Status In Weightlifting Performance After Training.” Journalof Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(0/00), 1-7 (2011).
2. Jerath, R., et. al. “Physiology of Long Pranayamic Breathing: Neural Respiratory Elements May Provide a Mechanism that Explains How Slow, Deep, Breathing Shifts the Autonomic Nervous System.” Journal of Medical Hypotheses, 67(3), 566-571 (2006).
3. Weil, Andrew. “Breathing: Three Exercises,” retrieved from http://www.drweil.com.
Ben Peterson, author of Triphasic Training, is currently pursuing his doctorate in kinesiology and exercise physiology at the University of Minnesota. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peterson started his career in 2008, working for the Minnesota Twins as an assistant strength and conditioning coach. Over the past four years, he has worked with hundreds of professional athletes in the NFL, NHL and MLB. Most recently, he has served as a consultant for Octagon Hockey, spending the NHL off-season working with their athletes in the Minneapolis area.