By this point, you’re probably down with the idea that you’ve gotta invest in yourself for a solid workout. You’ve got the clothes that wick, you’ve even splurged for a Theragun for post-fitness recovery, and you pushed past your comfort zone to incorporate yoga into your weekly routine. But you probably haven’t thought much about how to maximize one of your most basic functions: breathing.
It’s sort of crazy how something that is so second-nature to us during the rest of our waking hours becomes an actual hassle the second we start moving at a clip.
“In everything we do, from reaching for a glass of water to running a marathon, the delivery of oxygen to our system is of vital importance—literally,” says Justin Sweeney, PT, DPT, at Bespoke Treatments in Seattle. “But if you’re doing it wrong, improper breathing patterns could lead to decreased endurance, decreased load and volume output, lightheadedness, and even fainting and decreased spinal stability.” Even if you don’t have a respiratory condition (one in 13 people suffers from asthma, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention), you should still be thinking about your breathing: How you’re inhaling and exhaling air is just as important as the fact that you’re making time for exercise in the first place. We connected with experts to find out how we can make the most of our breathing during our workouts, and how we can correct for less-than-ideal air quality.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to breathe:
First, let’s touch on why breathing feels hard when you’re working out. The moment you start to channel your inner LeBron James (see also: Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps), there’s an increased demand on your muscles. Because of the extra effort you’re putting in, your body requires more oxygen and produces more carbon dioxide, according to the journal Breathe. When you go from resting to exercising, your breathing has to increase from about 15 breaths a minute (an estimated 12 liters of air) to about 40 to 60 times a minute (an additional 88 liters of air).
The best thing you can do is find a rhythm, says Amanda Joplin, ATC. Your goal: Use diaphragmatic breathing, or breathing that comes from the bottom of the chest cavity. “By breathing this way, you’ll see increased blood flow, improved relaxation, increased fat burning, decreased stress, and decreased risk of strains and cramps,” she adds.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, Sweeney suggests, place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Then watch the rise and fall of both hands. Try to breathe so that only the hand over your stomach moves. When you’re exercising, Joplin also suggests matching your breathing pattern to your activity. When you’re running, for instance, try inhaling on the first right step and exhaling on the second right step. During weightlifting, exhale on exertion and inhale on the relaxation. If it feels overwhelming, don’t worry: It gets easier with time. “The more you think about your breathing technique initially, the less you will have to later on, as the patterning becomes integrated in your movement,” adds Sweeney. “Optimizing your breathing will help you work longer, harder, and safer so you can keep progressing and pushing your potential.”
What’s happening outside matters, too:
Even when you’ve got the basics on how to breathe, certain factors affect the overall quality of your breaths—whether you’re hitting a workout or simply walking from your car to the grocery store.
Altitude: At high altitudes, the air pressure and oxygen levels are lower. To handle this, the body increases its breathing rate, which means that exercise (already hard) becomes even more difficult. If you are new to training at altitude, your body will take less effective breaths until it acclimatizes, says Joplin. Be patient with yourself. Don’t be a hero, and make sure not to push yourself too early in acclimatization. Hoping to hit a trail run and see the sights at altitude? Consider planning it a few days into your trip.
Outside temperature and humidity: “In temperature extremes, the body can work overtime to make sure the body stays at a normal temperature,” says Joplin. This can lead to abnormally rapid or deep breathing—not exactly ideal when you’re already gasping for air post-sprint or mid–burpee set. Breathing in very dry air can also irritate the throat and respiratory systems. (And an overly humid environment can trigger negative respiratory symptoms in those with asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.) Try adjusting your pace when conditions are making it more difficult to breathe.
Air pollution and allergens: Outdoor air quality can have a major impact on the air that you breathe on the move. Pollutants and allergens come from cars, dust, mold, fire, plants, construction, animals, and factories. Because you’re taking in more air during exercise and are more likely to breathe in deeply, your breaths generally bypass your nasal passages—which typically filter out pollution particles, according to Mayo Clinic. This can increase your risk for everything from irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat to lung cancer. Are you in an iffy pollution area? Aim to get your workouts in early in the morning or at night, post-work. Ozone levels often peak in the afternoon and early evening, and carbon monoxide may be a problem during rush hour in the morning and evening.
So breathe easier, grab your sweat-wicking gear, and get to work.