Religious acolytes, warriors, and early Olympians all understood the power of breath. One thousand years ago — and still today — Japanese Zen monks used breathing as a step to achieve a deep meditative state. U.S. Navy SEALs train in breathwork known as box breathing to maintain focus and calm in tense situations.
And athletes such as modern-day collegiate runner Rosalie Fish of the Cowlitz Tribe connects her breathing to her mindset: “My mood and mentality directly impacts my breathing. I find it extremely beneficial to keep a grateful mindset while running, which helps keep my mind calm and my pain tolerance high.”
Try these representative breathing techniques.
1. Energizing Breathing
Rapid, deep breaths can instantly energize, explains yoga instructor Tory Schaefer. It’s known as bhastrika pranayama, or the breath of fire. “This rapid-breathing technique pumps and floods the body with oxygen, which gives the body a pep of energy and helps to detox the body.”
- Inhale quickly through your nostrils, deep into your lungs; you should feel the breath in your navel.
- Squeeze the breath out by squeezing in the muscles of the belly and the navel area. If you feel light-headed or dizzy, stop and rest.
2. Controlled Race Breathing
Olympian and three-time national middle-distance-running champion Carrie Tollefson strives to maintain control over her breathing. “The best advice I have been given for breathing and running is to not overthink how you are breathing, but rather relax and stay in control. Think about trying to not force it one way or the other — not tensing as you fatigue. Keeping your arms, shoulders, and face loose will also allow you to stay calm. Running is not easy for anyone, but if we are tense or tight, everything seems to get harder.
“If you can stay in control with your breathing you will see better results. If you think about how you feel if you are breathing really fast — starting to panic — everything gets really hard. So when those tendencies present themselves, trying to slow your breath down will definitely help. If you are starting to breathe really rapidly or even hearing that wheezing some people get, that is when I would start a new pattern of breath. If you aren’t in control of it, then regain the control and focus on the positives rather than the negatives.” Here’s her technique:
- Inhale for 2 seconds or counts (breathe in on the right foot).
- Then exhale for 2 seconds or counts (breathe out on the left foot).
3. Strength-Training Breathing
To help brace your core for lifts, Toronto-based strength coach Lee Boyce recommends this:
- Take a long, slow, deep inhale during the eccentric (lowering) phase.
- Exhale on the concentric (raising) phase.
4. Focused Box Breathing
To maintain focus and calm in tense situations, U.S. Navy SEALs train with this technique:
- Slowly inhale to a 4 count.
- Hold that breath to a 4 count.
- Exhale to a 4 count.
- Hold to a 4 count. Repeat.
5. Calming Breathing
To calm yourself with a single breath, a long, slow exhalation will activate the vagus nerve to physically switch your system to a more relaxed mode, explains psychologist Greg Smith, PhD, author of Purposeful Breathing.
- Inhale through your nose.
- Form a small round hole with pursed lips, as if you had a straw through which you were breathing. Exhale slowly, letting the narrowness of the opening control the rate of the exhalation.
6. Relaxative Breathing
- Breathe in, then exhale through your mouth with a whoosh.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a 4 count.
- Hold for a 7 count.
- Exhale through your mouth with a whoosh to an 8 count. Repeat for at least four breaths.