Two weeks ago Kristian and I spoke about the importance of breathing correctly and how it helps endurance and fitness. You can check that out here at Episode 14 of Friday Fat Black.

It really got me thinking that breathing is a hugely underrated skill. As athletes, we get so caught up in the need to belt out big sessions, absorb heavy training loads and just generally be awesome – and these are important. But if we take a look at the fundamentals of movement (and living) it’s pretty obvious that breathing is essential to this sport.

But how many of you have actually taken the time to think about how your breathe? Sure we know that it’s an automatic function of our body – it just happens right? But can we improve our fitness, endurance, performance and generally well-being through correcting poor breathing methods?

Absolutely!

Controlled breathing is a skill, art form, takes years and years for people to truly master. Yogis spend nearly a lifetime dedicated to breathing correctly. And (despite your preferences for Yoga or not) those guys are pretty damn smart when it come to understanding the importance of controlled, deep breathing. They know that the body and mental state require a certain connection that enables complete and utter awesomeness. They know that this is a skill that is essential to what they do.

(More to the point) Elite athletes know how to do this too. Take a look at the biathletes at these years Winter Olympics in Sochi. Those guys belt themselves around a very technical course, with nasty terrain – at speed. They then have to accurately shoot different targets from different (standing or from the ground) positions before continuing on. Most athletes will enter the ‘transition’ area with heart rates thumping out at 160++bpm, and then very (very) quickly focus on slowing down their pulse so that they can accurately shoot their rifles (just to acknowledge, these guys are some of the fittest endurance athletes going). That is hard.

To get some perspective on this (yes this did happen) I decided that immediately after a solid run session this week, I would attempt to neatly write my name on paper with an en elevated HR (I don’t own a gun you see). The result was a terrible scrawl. Next run session, I did the same but this time I spent a few seconds, focusing on purposeful, controlled breathes, then scratched out a much more legible name. It wasn’t great but the evidence was clear; controlling my breathing enabled me a greater focus.

So does this even relate to SBR? Does learning to control your breathing even matter when you train or race?

You bet it does.

Start with the water – and I spoke about this in a post not so long ago – when you push yourself through the chaotic mass-start of a swim race, your HR naturally climbs as your output escalates and you start to breathe heavier. This is where a lot of people struggle – they sprint hard to find clear water, but when they get there, they are so aerobically taxed that the pace drops again and they get swallowed up by the very people they just swam past.

The same applies to the bike and the run. Any surge or extended effort requires a greater output from the muscles, heart and lungs. Every time this happens you start to push your aerobic threshold just that little bit more, which in turn taxes your body (system) further. Keep that up all day and you will certainly reach the point where your body starts to tell you it has had enough. KM and I like to call this lighting matches; you only have a few to use and if you use them up too soon, then well, your outta luck (I’m going to put my hand up right now and say that I am VERY guilty of this!).

A really simple way to learn how to control those situations is by spending time (in training of course) practising how to breathe well under duress. It’s not that hard to do: start during the warm-up/ easy stuff. Listen to your breathing, the rhythm the timing of each breath. This is important, because if you cannot accurately monitor and control your breathing during easy efforts, you have no chance of doing that when the tempo goes up.

So what you do is take in a controlled breath and then gently let that out through the mouth. It’s about control – not forcing it. At first it seems stupidly simple, but it does require a great deal of focus (it’s actually a very good way of ensuring you stay focused on what you are doing). Repeating this pattern will ensure that your breathing is under control during the inhale, and exhale phases. This allows your body to ‘slow down’ internally and properly assess the demands that you are placing on it. It stops you from rushing each breath, which causes the heart to work harder. What it also does is allows you to mentally regain control of what you are doing so that you can assess your effort and adjust if needed.

Being in control when things start to get tough is super important.

A lot of very talented athletes spend time focusing on this – they learn to ‘slow it all down’, find their rhythm (read: avoid panicking) and continue to push. All types of coaches in all types of sports have used this for years to help their athletes stay focused and in control.

Something so simple, yet very effective.

And hey, I am clearly not saying that proper breathing will take chunks of time out of your next IM race. But it will help you stay mentally and physically focused when your are under duress. It will help you adjust and adapt to the little surges and efforts that are required throughout the race.

And like all things SBR, you really have to practice and perfect this in training. This is where you have them most time to focus on developing this skill. Actually, doing this anytime is a really handy way to just slow the world down and get you thoughts sorted. We actually encourage our athletes to spend 5′ of deep (diaphragmatic) breathing before they start a session, and whilst rolling out and RESET-ing.

This really simple hack can seriously improve your mental focus during long sessions, but more importantly it will enable you to manage the aerobic demands that you place on the body during training and racing.