Could Breathing Boost Your Performance and Help Recovery?

Breathing. For many of us it’s the last thing on our minds once we’ve laced up our trainers and hit the gym but could the way you breathe be stopping you from reaching your fitness goals?

Breathing technique can affect our endurance, our speed and our recovery. It can also mean the difference between feeling great and feeling stressed out and tired.

According to Alison McConnell, author of Breathe Strong Perform Better (Human Kinetics).“Whoever you are, training your breathing muscles can make any physical challenge feel easier.”

At a basic level, breathing is what transfers oxygen and carbon dioxide around the body. Oxygen, along with fuel, gives us energy. “Breathing is vital for circulation and for muscle oxygenation,” says Zac Taylor, head trainer for News International. “When you exercise, your body needs more oxygen and more fuel.” By breathing more efficiently, we could improve our fitness and performance.

Many of us shy away from thinking about the way we breathe, perhaps because it just feels obvious or perhaps because time spent breathing is time that could be better spent burning calories. “Training your breathing before starting an exercise programme or when you have reached a plateau is almost so obvious that people don’t see it,” says Duncan Kerr, sales manager for PowerBreathe UK.


One of the most common causes of poor breathing technique is tense shoulders. “Participants often tense their shoulders and upper back when exercise hard,” says Taylor, “which means they can’t breathe properly.” Tense shoulders prevent us from using our diaphragm effectively, resulting in shallow, short breaths, a sign that you aren’t getting enough oxygen in and therefore have to breathe more often.

Daily use of computers or PDAs can increase shoulder tension and shallow breathing by pulling the head forwards. ”Anatomically your diaphragm is connected to your neck by nerves,” says Joanne Cobbe, director of JPilates. “If your head is pushed forwards you restrict your diaphragm which can affect oxygenation.”

The diaphragm plays a key role in breathing but many of us don’t use it effectively. This is one of the areas where classes like Pilates and yoga can help our fitness. By making your diaphragm and therefore your breathing more efficient, you won’t need to breath as hard.

Try this simple Pilates breathing exercise from Joanne Cobbe to get your diaphragm working harder:

  • Stand up or sit on a firm chair and place your hands on your very bottom rib, just above your waist.
  • Breathe into your fingertips.
  • Imagine you are filling the huge rib space with your breath.
  • Relax your shoulders as you breathe.


As well as your diaphragm, your intercostal muscles (the ones between your ribs) have a big role to play in breath control. “Unless you do a lot of intensive sprints or hill work, these muscles don’t develop much,”says Kerr, “consequently when they are required to perform they struggle and you slow down.”

Like any muscle, you can train your breathing muscles to become stronger. “Stronger muscles equal less fatigue and greater endurance,” says Kerr. This is why sprints are such an effective part of any training programme.

Many Olympic athletes are now using inspiratory muscle trainers like POWERbreathe, to strengthen their breathing muscles. Adding resistance to your breathing, like dumbbells for your lungs has been shown to increase endurance.

Training your breathing muscles like this makes your body more fuel efficient on fewer breaths. “The extra fuel can go to the legs or arms keeping them going faster for longer.” says Kerr. “You can maintain running at higher heart rates and there is a psychological sense of less effort.”


Our brains control our rate of breathing based on the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. Therefore the way we think about, or focus on our breathing can also impact our breathing technique.

Founder and president of Breath Research, Nirinjan Yee has devoted thirty years to the study of breath. Having been partially paralysed by late stage Lyme disease which left her unable to walk for three years, Yee brought herself back to health when medicine failed by focusing on her breath.

Yee’s recovery inspired her to study the anatomy and physiology of breath. “We now have a scientific model that explains what ancient traditions and Joseph Pilates have been telling us forever.” Yee created the MyBreath App to enable users to train themselves and get feedback on how they are breathing.

The MyBreath method includes analysing the rate and depth of your breathing (studies have shown that optimal breathing rate for muscle oxygenation is five to seven breaths per minute) as well as how you breathe in, out and pause between breaths.

“If we can learn to breathe optimally at rest, we can learn to access both power and calm even while under physical exertion and/or when emotions are high, and this leads to greater endurance and performance,” says Yee.


As well as during the event, studies have shown diaphragmatic breathing helps athletes to recover quicker after exercise. According to a 2009 study published by the University of Camerino, Italy, diaphragmatic breathing during and after exercise significantly reduced stress on the body caused by exercise. The stress hormone cortisol was lower after diaphragmatic breathing, enabling athletes to recover quicker. Another study, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2009 found that inspiratory muscle training reduced lactic acid in the blood after exercise, which also helps post exercise recovery.


“Whether you’re performing in a 40K cycling time trial, an interval training session, or a step class, training your breathing muscles will help you breathe easier,” says McConnell. But don’t sweat it. Stressing about the way you breathe will make you tense, says Cobbe. So just breathe!

NOTE: Original words by Karen Lisa Laing, first published by BodyFit magazine 2012.


Breath Strong, Perform Better
Alison McConnell PhD [Human Kinetics, published 2011]
The book is available online from Human Kinetics at and a purchaser can get 20% discount if they join HK Rewards loyalty scheme. Also available at Amazon.
Endurance training of respiratory muscles improves cycling performance in fit young cyclists
Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress (attachment)
Inspiratory muscle training reduces blood lactate concentration during volitional hyperpnoea.


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