Breathing is primal and yet so very difficult to master. We barely think about it as we sit in our chairs at work, inhaling and exhaling through our nose. When we head out to exercise, our breathing patterns change, but that’s not something we control. Our brains determine how much oxygen we need, sending signals to our muscles to help propel us forward. Think about the last time you may have noticed when you stopped breathing through your nose and started breathing through your mouth. It likely wasn’t conscious. While we might not ever think about the changes psychologically during exercise to our breathing patterns, it’s one of the ways our body gets through the intense physical challenges we throw at it. And yet, it’s also one tool we can use to change how our bodies respond to stress — whether physical or mental. It just takes time.
We started breathing at birth, we never had to learn how to do it, which means any change to that base function is a mental game. Our brains developed a fear of drowning and suffocation for a reason: to help protect us from a lack of air. But if we can conquer that primal fear and mentally move past it, we can push our bodies into new levels. Breathwork is one of the focuses of Dr. Andy Walshe, a renowned sports scientist that studies breathing. Dr. Walshe used to work with Red Bull athletes as the high-performance director. He’s known for researching ways to increase the performance of individuals who are already world-class athletes. He makes the best better. He also served as the director of high performance for the U.S. Ski team for eight years. Teams want to work with Dr. Walshe when they want to improve athlete performance or hack into new levels. Last winter, Dr. Walshe worked with a team of Jaybird athletes in Park City, Utah and focused solely on breathing. “Breathwork is a really simple and powerful tool to help improve performance. It’s been used for thousands of years across all forms of spiritual and physical disciplines and it has proven itself over that time,” Dr. Walshe says.
As the potential of 2019 is still unfolding, the limits to human performance are slowly diminishing. We spoke with Dr. Walshe to learn why breathwork is so important and how it can be used to push everyone to new levels. For the everyday athlete, we can take these tips and use them to help fuel our own goals, whether that’s running longer, cycling faster, swimming with less breathing and more.
Q: What type of breathwork challenges did you do with the Jaybird athletes?
A: The Jaybird program was a combination of deep breathing techniques based in the mindfulness traditions, breathing techniques used in the freediving community and some more aggressive techniques we honed in the big wave safety program we ran at Red Bull. These were combined in an approach to help the Jaybird athletes understand the power of breath and specifically in this case, teach them how it can supercharge their performance. One outcome is that they were able to hold their breath for extended periods of time: up to 3-5 minutes.
But the more powerful lesson revolved around self-awareness. Suffocation or drowning is a primal fear. So while facing a challenge like holding your breath, you’re eventually going to come up against your own personal limit or edge at which point things become tough. As you approach this edge you have a chance to observe your own internal dialogue and how you are managing the anxiety around that challenge. That moment can tell you a lot about how you are going to deal with any kind of stressful situation. As it becomes tougher and tougher, the only way to manage yourself in this moment is through consciously controlling the negative thoughts and calming the mind and body.
Q: On a larger scale, how does your breathing affect your entire body?
A:The research has shown fairly unequivocally that modifying your breathing, especially in respect to slowing and relaxing your breath rate and improving the depth of your breath (really deep diaphragmatic breathing), has a plethora of psychological and biological benefits.
Studies have demonstrated that regular diaphragmatic deep breathing exercises — either as part of a mindfulness program or as part of a general breathing training program — reduce stress, reduce cortisol levels and have the capability to improve mood.
Q: How does breathing affect how you handle fitness challenges?
A: There are two ways to think about it. If the challenge is significant and you feel like it’s something that’s going to take you to your limits, then you’re probably going to have increased general anxiety prior to the event.
So before those big, high risk, high stakes events, breathing helps down-regulate the whole system and allows you to retain focus. It pulls you back from the edge of where the anxiety becomes a performance impairment. Watch how players in the upcoming Super Bowl will take a few deep breaths before key moments to pull them back from the edge to help maintain control and focus.
During a tough or moderately tough challenge, the key is to remember to get out of the shallow breathing and get back into a deep breathing pattern that allows you to highly oxygenate the cardiovascular system. You will be able to deliver more oxygen more efficiently to the lungs and from the lungs to the muscles. It also has a side benefit of reducing stress.
Q: How does learning to breathe help you execute at the highest levels?
A: With higher stake activities – where everything is on the line – there is potentially a lot of anxiety. Slow, regulated breathing prior to the event has the effect of lowering the level of anxiety and stress. It gives you a chance to regain composure to focus on what’s important, thereby setting yourself up for a better chance of success.
If an athlete starts to get anxious during an event, they can benefit from relaxing psychologically and slowing their breath. That will naturally slow down their heart rate — the two are inextricably intertwined.
Q: Does this help everyone from beginners to pros?
A: The same things apply for everyday athletes. Whenever they find themselves in a tough moment or doing something that’s a little bit challenging, mentally relaxing and increasing their focus allows them to be more aware of their situation, which is really important. This applies to everyone, whether it’s the Super Bowl or your first mountain bike descent.
Q: How can you use breathwork to achieve huge (and small) goals?
A: Breathwork allows you to become more centered and improves your self-awareness of how you respond to situations. Managing yourself in any situation is the key to reaching performance goals, especially as the goals become more significant.