In today’s society, exercise is a part of everyday life. From high school sports and professional sports teams to recreational running and yoga classes, exercise is everywhere. However, many people struggle with breathing during exercise. Gym-goers pant on the treadmill, weight-lifters have trouble lifting their weights, and yoga classes struggle to stay balanced. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ve heard every saying about “breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth” or breathing at certain times while exercising, which can be confusing or overwhelming to do. So, many people ignore their breathing while they exercise and do not regulate their breathing patterns at all. But, many of the exercise difficulties that people experience can be improved by learning to breathe properly while exercising. So, how does this work? And, how does breathing differ between exercises?
The Science Behind Breathing
The process of breathing involves several chest muscles, most notably the diaphragm. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped, sheet-like muscle that lies underneath the lungs. Not only does the diaphragm separate the chest from the abdomen, it is also the primary respiratory muscle. When we inhale, our lungs expand and the diaphragm contracts, or moves downward, as it flattens. At the same time, the intercostal muscles of the rib cage expand. This expansion of the diaphragm and intercostals and the addition of air in the lungs creates a great deal of pressure inside the body, which will play a large role in breath regulation as we will see later. While inside the body, oxygen is absorbed to create energy in the form of ATP. Then, as we exhale, our lungs return to their resting state and the diaphragm returns to a dome shape. As this happens, the pressure built up during inhalation is relieved through the release of gas as carbon dioxide. But what does all this mean for your exercise routine?
The In’s and Out’s of Breathing For All Exercises
Breathing patterns and the timing of breathing differs from exercise to exercise. Many breathing patterns in sports are based on regulating the build-up of pressure that occurs during inhalation, as mentioned above. Other breathing patterns are meant to maximize oxygen-uptake by the body. But, it’s important to note that each sport or type of exercise requires different breathing patterns.
Running is one sport with no singular convention on breathing. Some people say “breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.” Others say to breathe in-tune to your running, so inhale on one step, exhale on the next. Still others claim that you should breathe however best suits you to finish a run. So, is there no singular optimal way to breathe when running?
Studies have shown that this is false – there are certain ways of breathing that are less energetically costly and more comfortable for runners. One study supporting this was conducted by McDermott, et al. to analyze the connection between breathing pattern and stride rhythm. In this study, ten subjects ran at various paces while measurements of heel strike and inhalation were recorded. The results showed that runners have a tendency to breathe in a 2:1 or 3:2 pattern most often, meaning inhaling for 2 steps and exhaling for 1 (2:1) or inhaling for 3 steps and exhaling for 2 (3:2).
This seems to be a logical pattern of breathing when running. First of all, it is good practice to breathe in sync with your footfalls. When breathing with your footfalls, you time the movement of your body and internal organs with the movement of your diaphragm during respiration. This prevents the development of odd, uncomfortable areas of pressure on the diaphragm which can impede breathing. In terms of the speed of breathing, the more quickly you breathe, the less time your body has to fully absorb the O2 you’re bringing in through respiration. When your body doesn’t have enough oxygen to energize itself, anaerobic metabolism kicks in, which causes lactate to accumulate and decreases the body’s ability to perform endurance tasks. However, when you breathe slowly, more oxygen is drawn into the body, and the body has enough time to absorb the oxygen in your lungs to create energy and keep you energized when running.
Therefore, by slowly breathing in a 3:2 or 2:1 pattern in sync to your footfalls when you run, you have the potential to run more smoothly and for a longer period of time before fatiguing by maximizing oxygen uptake.
While there is no standard convention for breathing when running, there is one near-universally accepted standard of breathing for weight lifting exercises. Convention says that while performing weight lifting tasks, one should exhale on exertion and inhale during reset. Easy enough to remember, right? But, is this the best way to breathe when lifting weights?
Studies point to yes. In one study by Hagins, et al. subjects were asked to perform three different breathing patterns while lifting objects:
- Inhaling before lift, holding during lift
- Exhaling before lift and holding during lift
- Inhaling before lift and exhaling during lift
While subjects were doing this, measurements were being taken of change in abdominal pressure and maximum force exerted. These measurements showed that abdominal pressure was lowest during breathing patterns 2 and 3, both of which involved exhalation.
Another study by Lamberg and Hagins looked at breathing patterns when lifting different loads. Subjects were asked to lift milk crates multiple times while a pneumotachograph recorded airflow. This study found that the most consistent natural breathing pattern among individuals was to inhale right before lifting an object, which is consistent with the results of the previous study.
Based on these two studies, it is clear that exhalation is an important part of breathing during weight lifting. By reducing the amount of pressure in the abdomen, exhaling during lifting decreases the chances of sustaining internal injuries such as hernias and vessel strains which can be caused by excessive internal pressure. Exhaling relieves that pressure by releasing some of the accumulated air from the abdomen, ensuring that the abdominal pressure does not reach an unsafe level. So, next time you go to the gym to bench press, remember to exhale when pressing and inhale before letting the weight down onto your chest to regulate pressure build-up in your chest and abdomen.
The studies viewed in the cases of running and weight-lifting were limited in that they consider only two very rigidly structured types of exercise. The running study had subjects running at specifically selected speeds. And, the weight-lifting studies only looked at subjects lifting specific weights in an up-down direction. But, what about sports where running speed and timing can vary, such as soccer or football? Or exercises where full-body balance is the goal, such as yoga? Is there an optimal breathing pattern for these sports and exercises?
More testing needs to be done to determine optimal breathing for these sports. But, based on the results of existing studies and on common practice in sports, it’s likely that the best breathing pattern for your sport will involve a balance between maximizing oxygen uptake and regulating abdominal pressure.
Recommended Further Reading
For more information about breathing during exercise, explore:
- Breathe Strong, Perform Better by Alison McConnell
- Yoga and breathing
- Influence of Different Breathing Frequencies on the Severity of Inspiratory Muscle Fatigue Induced by High-Intensity Front Crawl Swimming
- Acceleration of VO2 kinetics in heavy submaximal exercise by hyperoxia and prior high-intensity exercise
- Pattern of breathing and ventilatory response to CO2 in subjects practicing hatha-yoga
- Yoga Breathing, Meditation, and Longevity
Questions to Consider
- Are you aware of your breathing when you exercise? Do you make it a point to breathe a certain way when you exercise?
- When you run, what step-breath pattern do you follow most often?
- If you lift weights, how do you breathe when you lift? When do you inhale and exhale?
- How do you think the breathing patterns covered in this article can be applied to sports/exercises like soccer, football, or yoga?
This was very interesting to me because I am currently taking a pilates class and breathing is one of the main focuses of the class. The breathing pattern followed in my class is similar to how you explained breathing for weightlifting. Most of the time, we exhale during exertion and inhale during rest. Although this is the most common breathing pattern, I also think that it would be beneficial to further study which method of breathing is best for exercises where core strength and balance are the goal.
That’s awesome, Sara! I’m glad to hear you’ve gotten to learn more about breathing through your pilates class. I actually had a similar situation in my Total Body Tone class – we spent one day working on pilates that was heavily focused on breathing, and I asked my instructor about it later. She said a similar thing as well about when to breathe during certain exercises. So, it’s interesting to hear that there seems to be one fairly universal approach to breathing for certain exercises!
And in terms of breathing during other exercises, I’ll talk a bit more in class tomorrow about convention for breathing during yoga and high-intensity sports! But, more research into the area would definitely be beneficial.
I also think this is an interesting topic. Breathing correctly in lifting is absolutely essential, especially for the olympic style lifts. While increased abdominal pressure can be an issue for some lifts, olympic style lifts actually require increased pressure to maintain proper form and prevent serious injury. The valsalva maneuver (a way of increasing abdominal pressure) is mainly used to protect your spine to prevent herniations or slipped discs (which from experience, is the worst pain ever).
Yes, definitely! Increased abdominal pressure is not always a bad thing. I actually found in my research that a certain amount of pressure/contraction is good to have in the abdomen to maintain stability when lifting, and the Valsalva maneuver can be good for that. However, the danger comes into play when this abdominal pressure and force from exertion becomes too much for the body to withstand, causing a hernia or other form of a strain. So, while keeping a certain amount of abdominal pressure can be beneficial, too much pressure buildup can be detrimental. It’s largely a matter of finding a good middle-ground or optimal abdominal pressure that works best for you!
I’m always aware of my breathing during exercise. I used to frequently get side stitches when running, and while there are several potential causes of this, I found that focusing on not exhaling during the strike of a certain foot every time made them stop completely. This means I now try to maintain a relaxed breathing pattern that’s actually independent of my running cadence, and it works for me. I do feel energy-efficient this way, although I don’t really run long distances at all (usually < 1 mile) so efficiency may not come into play.
During sets of weightlifting I also focus on exhaling during the concentric portion of the movement and inhaling at some point before the next concentric part. This helps with stamina, power, and not getting a headache from holding my breath while exerting myself.
That’s interesting to hear – so you don’t sync your breathing with your footfalls? I actually used to do the same thing. When I ran track in high school, I started out not really breathing in much of a rhythm, and that wasn’t a problem for my sprinting races. But, I found that for cross country races, my breath would naturally fall into rhythm with my footfalls the further I ran. So, maybe distance is a contributing factor to feeling comfortable with breath-footfall rhythm, that would definitely be something interesting to look into in the future!
This is interesting to me because I think breathing during exercise is one of the hardest things. That may sounds weird but especially when I get short on breath, I just start over thinking and find it hard to focus on both running and breathing at the same time. I definitely think some people naturally have a “better” breathing pattern, but I wonder if that is true.
That’s an interesting point! While using a generic breathing pattern like the ones highlighted above can be beneficial for some people, your breathing pattern should ultimately reflect what’s best for you individually. Usually, if you’re running, you’ll find that you fall into a natural pattern of breathing that best suits you. So, maybe stick with that if it’s most comfortable and least challenging for you, and then work toward a general breathing pattern slowly over time!
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