We all know what it’s like to be working out and have our lungs be the limiting factor to our performance, whether it’s running on the tread or doing strength work on the floor. My legs might feel good, but if I can’t control my breathing, I’ve got to hop off the belt early or drop my weights before my set is over. That feeling is both frustrating and helpless. It’s a moment that occurs for all of us, but if we can make them few and far between, we feel better about heading into the gym, better during the workout, and leave feeling empowered for whatever comes next.
My background in breathing comes from my experience as a musician. In operatic singing, the intake and management of your breath is a make-or-break endeavor. I have sung in choir since my freshman year of high school, but my college voice teacher really got me involved in opera. The size of my voice fit the scale of the music well (you have to sing without a mic over a full orchestra), and once I started I had a blast. Singing has taught me a lot and shown me the possible reward of hard work. By 25 I have been a soloist at Minneapolis Orchestra Hall and sang in the Vatican on choir tour. If I set myself up for success in the phrase I’m about to sing, I have an opportunity to create a magical moment. But if I breathe poorly, there’s no chance at all. Breathing for bel canto singing (opera) is the most coordinated breathing in the world. So how does one breathe properly?
It all starts with posture. Just like our setup for a walking lunge we set up with our feet directly beneath our hips. Shoulders are stacked on top of the hips and the shoulders are rolled back and away from the ears (but still relaxed). The sternum must be held high, as if someone tied a string from the middle of your sternum to the ceiling. Now we are ready for the intake.
The intake is most efficient by breathing using the diaphragm. You know that you are breathing using your diaphragm if your stomach and rib cages expand when you breath. If you take a breath and you expand through the sternum or your shoulders rise and lower, you want to let your diaphragm take over more of the workload. When breathing with the diaphragm, your chest will expand near the end of a full breath, but we want to maximize expansion into the stomach first. Once you take your breath in, you want to manage it. Managing the breath as a singer means controlling the pace of the exhale.
In the gym managing the breath means hanging onto that expansion so that when you inhale next, the air has an unrestricted path towards maximum volume. Why is maintaining expansion important? Think about a balloon. When you blow it up the first time you have to blow hard enough that you move the walls of the balloon to make the shape that you want. If the balloon could stay the same size when you let the air out, putting the air back in would be a heck of a lot easier than if you let the balloon completely deflate.
Cool! So…. How do I do this while I’m working out…?
Keep core under tension
When we run, we need to keep our core under ~20% tension for rock-solid technique. This doesn’t mean that we stop breathing by activating our diaphragm. There is a balance between completely letting go of your core to take a diaphragmatic breath and keeping the core too tight so we cannot expand using our intercostals and diaphragm. It can be tricky to find, but that is why we practice!
Breathe through stomach and pelvic floor
Once our effort is over, every second of rest is valuable. Once you step off that treadmill, maximum expansion through your stomach and pelvic floor is the goal. We want to take deep and voluminous breaths during our rest time to accomplish a few different things:
Practice our habit of coordinated, intentional breathing mechanics
Give our midline a break from being rigid during exercises (This will help towards feeling more refreshed going into the next set)
Provide maximal oxygen intake to provide your body with more fuel to burn during the next set.
Release tension throughout the body to allow more efficient movement mechanics during our working time
If you want to learn some breathing exercises to teach yourself healthy breathing habits, take those proper breathing mechanics onto the tread with you, and recover quicker through efficient oxygen intake.
Any questions, let me know!
All Hail the TreadMighty,