How Proper Breathing Can Boost Sports Performance

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It may seem as though there wouldn't be much to say about how to breathe: Inhale. Exhale. Repeat. What could be easier? What could be more automatic? 

We go on breathing whether or not we pay attention to it, so it may seem as though there wouldn't be a need for practicing different ways of breathing. But given that oxygen is our most essential nutrient for life and respiration is the process we use to get all that life-sustaining oxygen into our cells, maybe taking a closer look at how we breathe isn't a waste of time.

Mechanics of Breathing

The muscle responsible for the endless cycle of inhalation and exhalation,​ the diaphragm, sits deep within the abdominal cavity. When we take a breath, the diaphragm contracts and flattens out, pulling air into the lungs. As the lungs fill, the ribs expand and lift up and out. Then, during the exhale the diaphragm relaxes, the abs contract and pull the ribs back down and the air leaves our lungs.

The process of respiration is unique in that it is under both our conscious and unconscious control. If you pay attention to your breath, you can easily control it, but as soon as you forget about it, the autonomic nervous system takes over and you continue breathing all day and night long. Because it is generally an automatic process, most people never pay attention to it. But for an athlete, paying close attention to when, how and why you breathe has many benefits. 

Proper breathing requires thoracic mobility, good abdominal and core strength and, strange as it may sound, a full range of motion in the diaphragm from contraction to relaxation. Many people—athletes included—walk around with a diaphragm that is in a constant state of contraction. The diaphragm also needs to continually return to a relaxed, domed state to function properly. In order for the diaphragm to relax the abs must contract in opposition.

Breathing Exercises for Athletes​​

Athletes and non-athletes can both practice a few basic breathing exercises to train the abs and diaphragm to work together to provide full inhalation and exhalation.

Blow Up a Balloon

Blowing up balloons can help teach an athlete what it feels like to have a complete and full exhalation using the abdominal muscles. Take a deep inhale and exhale with a long, steady, forceful breath and contract the abdominal muscles to try to force the last of the air out of the lungs. Repeat several times.

Wall Sit With Deep Breathing

While sitting against the wall in the wall sit position, reach your arms forward and practice long, slow deep breathing. Take a deep breath in, then exhale completely using a count of five to expel as much air as possible.

Because you are keeping your spine against the wall, in a neutral position, the breathing exercise will force you to use the diaphragm and abs to perform inhalation and exhalation and not rely on the spine, neck, or shoulders to expand the rib cage. Plus, you'll get a great quad burn as well. 

Breath of Fire

This breathing exercise is well-known among yoga practitioners. The basic technique involves short, forceful exhales, and short, passive inhales. This is done by quickly pumping (contracting and relaxing) the abdominal muscles.

To begin, relax the belly and inhale quickly through the nostrils. Before you exhale, pull the belly button in toward the spine to support a forceful yet passive exhale, and then repeat. It should feel as though you are creating a rapid pumping system for the breath to be pulled in and out through the nostrils with the mouth closed.

Abdominal Hollowing

Abdominal hollowing is an exercise that trains the core muscles to better stabilize the spine and pelvis. It's done by standing tall, or laying on your back, and then contracting and pulling in the abdominal wall without moving the pelvis or spine.

To begin, take a deep breath in. On your exhale, draw the belly button all the way back towards the spine. Hold for a count of 5, then slowly inhale. Repeat several times. This movement engages the deep core stabilizers so you are better able to attain a full and complete exhalation during respiration. 

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Boyle KL, Olinick J, Lewis C. The value of blowing up a balloonN Am J Sports Phys Ther. 2010;5(3):179–188.

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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.