Training and Breathing
While we cannot change our genetics and seriously increase the volume at which our lungs take in oxygen, we can influence how quickly that oxygen is delivered throughout our body. The oxygen distribution system is determined by the rate at which our heart can pump blood, the speed at which the intercostal muscles can lift the ribcage (so we can take a breath) and the ability of the capillaries to dilate and carry more blood than usual to our muscles. All of these can be improved through exercise.
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) challenges the muscles to perform at a high rate of work and that, in turn, puts a strain on both our aerobic capacity and our VO2 max capability and helps improve it. The rhythm at which we breathe (our individual breathing technique and style, if you like) also play a part here.
You know the feeling when you’re trying to do something physically hard, you’re breathing hard as a result and you feel your own breathing works against you? That’s down to the lack of rhythm. Breathing is a physical activity in its own right and unless it I done right it can clash with how the body’s other muscles work.
Experienced athletes know when to breathe in and out so that the muscles that control breathing work in harmony with the muscles doing all the hard physical work. The breathing rhythm of sprinters who need to work at extremely high intensity for up to ten seconds at a time and that of ballet dancers who require explosive movements and sustained physical work, are good examples of getting the breathing rhythm just right. When you watch them perform they appear to not need to breathe at all.
As a rule exhalations should happen at the moment when most muscles are tense and performing and inhalations should occur when muscles are at their most relaxed. This way carbon dioxide is exhaled from the body at time when the muscles are working and need to get rid of their by-products and oxygen is breathed in as they are preparing to burn fuel and work. This is why boxers frequently exhale sharply when punching, martial artists punching boards use the kiai (the martial arts cry) and tennis player like Venus Williams or Maria Sharapova grunt explosively every time they hit the ball.
Depending on what sport you do the breathing rhythm you establish is going to be different and it will depend upon the exertions demanded of you and your particular style. Having said that there are a few things you should keep in mind:
Always breathe in through the nose: (it prevents your mouth from drying out plus it filters the air for impurities that can hurt the lungs)
Try to exhale through the mouth: (particularly if you’re running, cycling or are engaged in a sustained physical activity). It helps establish a clear breathe-in, breathe-out cycle.
– Monitor your breathing: Listen to your body and experiment with what works for you. Some long distance runners take a breath, run four steps, then breathe out. Properly warmed-up sprinters, running a race often need just one breathe. They breathe in at the beginning of the 100m dash, then exhale slowly over 10 or so seconds so that the entire sprint is just one, long exhalation. Martial artists and ballet dancers manage to control their breathing so precisely that they breathe in deeply during long, slow movements and then exhale forcefully through the nose (rather than mouth) when they ballistically explode into motion.
– Breathe-in slower than you breathe-out: Your inhalation (when you breathe-in) should always be slower than your exhalation (when you breathe-out). There is a good reason for it. Apart from helping you develop a good rhythm (mid-distance runners frequently use the four-strides technique where they breathe in, run four strides and then breathe out) it also allows the absorption of as much oxygen as possible from each breath, before you exhale. If you ever have to “run out” a stitch you need to drop your pace a little and then take deeper breaths with slower exhalations.
– Finally one handy tip: should you find yourself getting out of breath (because you’re breathing in when you should be breathing out and you can’t get enough oxygen in your lungs) try placing your tongue against the roof of your mouth while you’re breathing in. This stimulates your saliva glands, gets rid of the “cotton-mouth” effect that comes with excessive breathing. Helps get rid of the feeling that your throat is so dry that you simply cannot breathe and it makes you aware of how you actually use up oxygen.
Ultimately whether you’re going to escape the dinosaur on your tail depends on your body’s ability to breathe hard without getting out of breath. Eventually everyone hits a wall but the longer you can keep on going before that happens, the fitter you are.
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