You see, breathing is a constantly changing process. From your sleep, to being awake to exercising, how you breath and how you should be breathing changes. It changes based on two primary factors, your metabolic demand, which is how much energy your body requires to do the task and how active your sympathetic nervous system is.

Breathing from Sleep to Exercise

When you are sleeping well, your breathing is slow, calm and relaxed. You are breathing between 10-15 breaths per minute in a nasal only, full diaphragmatic nature. During the course of your day, this should continue to be the case with little change in the pattern. But what happens during exercise? The answer is a lot.


You see, when you are exercising, your breathing rate SHOULD increase. The reason for this is that you are increasing your metabolic demand due to the increase in energy requirements and this creates an environment that requires more oxygen. To get more oxygen, you need to breathe more. As you exercise harder, the demand for oxygen increases.


Now this differs across different activities, but an increase in breathing rate is the natural outcome. In swimming, breathing goes up to 30-40 breaths per minute. In running and cycling, you naturally increase your breathing rate to 40-60 breaths per minute. The types of exercise where this doesn’t occur are weight training, yoga or martial arts. Roughly speaking, your breathing rate should remain relatively the same for these styles of exercise.

Sympathetic Activation and Overbreathing

Now you understand what happens to your breathing when you go from resting to exercise, the question you should be asking yourself is if it is possible to over-breathe as you increase exercise intensity? The answer is yes.

As exercise intensity increases, your sympathetic nervous system will naturally increase in its activation to allow a cascade of things to occur in your body to undertake exercise. What we know is that during this process, some people develop a habit of ‘overbreathing’ for the exercise at hand. Overbreathing simply means breathing in excess of the metabolic demand or breathing more than you need to.


What is important to understand is that whilst breathing needs to increase in order to do more exercise, you want to keep your breathing patterns rhythmic, smooth and non-chaotic. When your breathing becomes ‘chaotic’, it is likely you are in the over breathing phase.

How You Can Improve Your Breathing Dynamics with Exercise

Technique 1: Improve your Breath Awareness

Technique 1 is to improve your breath awareness. Before you can improve your breathing under the workload of the exercise, you need to identify how you are breathing at rest and during exercise.
Next time you go for a run, bike ride or complete a yoga session, I want you to answer the following questions:

  • Am I breathing in and out through my nose or mouth?
  • Am I breathing into my chest or doing a full 360, bi-basal, diaphragmatic breath?
  • Am I breathing in a smooth or chaotic manner?
  • How stressed is my body and mind feeling right now?

I want you to compare the answers to these questions during exercise and during rest. You can also use breathing exercise devices such as Oxa to get precise measurements.

Technique 2: Warm Up Appropriately

Technique 2 is warming up your respiratory system for exercise. One of the biggest mistakes people make when exercising is not warming up appropriately for the demand of the exercise.

Next time you go for a run, bike ride or complete a yoga session, I want you to complete the following for 5 minutes prior to your exercise session:


  • Lay on your back, with your knees bent up. Have your hands placed just inside of your hip bones.
  • From this position, place the tongue on the roof of your mouth and begin to breathe in and out through your nose.
  • As you go through your breathing, you want to imagine two things:some text
    • Firstly, you are breathing like you are filling up a glass of water. You start at the bottom where your fingers are and slowly fill up the rest of the cup (i.e. breath into your belly, your ribs, into your back and up into your chest).
    • Secondly, you want to FEEL under your fingers that you are inflating a balloon. As you breathe in, you should feel the sensation of ‘inflation’. This tells you that you are generating intra-abdominal pressure.
  • Focus on keeping your breathing rhythm and rate.

Technique 3: Switching Gears

Technique 3 is all learning how to identify when your breathing rate has increased to a place we call ‘Overbreathing’ and learning how to transition back down to a more comfortable, rhythmic breathing pattern.

  • Gear 1: Nasal Onlysome text
    • Tongue placed on the roof of the mouth
    • Breath in and out through the nose
    • Breath in a full 360, diaphragmatic nature
    • Keep breathing rhythmic
  • Gear 2: Nasal In, Mouth Outsome text
    • Tongue placed on the roof of the mouth
    • Breath in through the nose
    • Breath out through the mouth
    • Breath in a full 360, diaphragmatic nature
    • Keep breathing rhythmic
  • Gear 3: Mouth In, Mouth Outsome text
    • Breath in through the mouth
    • Breath out through the mouth
    • Breath in a full 360, diaphragmatic nature
    • Keep breathing rhythmic
  • Gear 4: Mouth In, Mouth Out (Overbreathing)some text
    • Breath in through the nose
    • Breath out through the mouth
    • Breath in a full 360, diaphragmatic nature
    • Breathing is not rhythmic (more chaotic)


To practice, I want you to spend 1 minute practicing each gear and at the end of the minute, ‘shift gears’ to the next. When you hit gear 4, practice shifting all the way back to gear 1. See the following table to practice the drill.



Gear

Time

Gear 1

60 s (6-8 breaths)

Gear 2

60 s (6-8 breaths)

Gear 3

60 s (6-8 breaths)

Gear 4

60 s (6-8 breaths)

Gear 3

60 s (6-8 breaths)

Gear 2

60 s (6-8 breaths)

Gear 1

60 s (6-8 breaths)

Also Read: Revitalize Your Afternoons: Science-Driven Energy Tips – Oxa

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: What is ‘Diaphragmatic Breathing’?

Diaphragmatic breathing is a term that has been used to explain the way the diaphragm should move when you breathe. When you breathe in, your diaphragm should drop and expand in a full 360, meaning you should feel the expansion into the belly, the ribs and into your back.

Q: What is the difference between ‘Diaphragmatic Breathing’ and ‘Belly Breathing’?

Main difference is the way our brains think about the word ‘Belly’. Specifically speaking, when people try to do ‘belly breathing’, they often only breath into their belly. They don’t get the lateral expansion into the ribs or the expansion into the back as is the case with ‘diaphragmatic breathing’

Q: Why is it important to learn how to switch gears before exercising?

Like anything, practice is important. We want to practice the idea of switching gears (i.e. changing our breathing patterns) in less stressful situations prior to needing to use them when exercising. The more you practice in a safer environment, the easier it will be to use when you need it

Tom Williams
Published:
May 28, 2024

A physiotherapist from Brisbane, Australia, excels in applying breathing techniques to enhance health and performance. In his practice and as a tutor at the University of Queensland, he emphasizes the power of breath to manage injuries, improve sports performance, and boost productivity. Through workshops and seminars, Tom teaches breathing fundamentals to athletes, students, and professionals, proving its versatility for stress management, learning, and physical activity.

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