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Breathing exercises. The untapped potential for Endurance Performance

I am always on the hunt for marginal gains to improve my performance on the swim, bike and run. But including breathwork into my daily routine has by no means been marginal.

For years my parents have been telling me to do breathing exercises like pranayama. Being a brahmin, it is something that is part of our religious practice. But like most things, I avoided it or didn't do it with any interest and never realized the importance of it until recently. My parents do their own breathing routine everyday without fail and always kept telling me how much benefits they get from it. I always thought I don't have time because training, stretching, eating, recovery and work takes up all the time available.

Since my ankle injury in Jan, I was unable to do anything other than sit in the bed with my left leg in a cast waiting for it to recover. I was dejected knowing that the gains I made would be lost. It doesn't take a long time of inactivity to lose adaptations and fitness, especially in endurance sports.

So all I could do was eat clean and stay strict with my diet and do some abdominal and hips based strength training in my balcony.

But then I started doing my own routine of breathing exercises. A mix from my parents routine, some from the techniques famous martial artists use (I am talking about Rickson Gracie) and made my own structured breathing template.

I never realized how inefficient my breathing was before this. How ineffective my nasal pathway was. All this makes a huge difference in endurance sports as Oxygen and efficiency of its transport plays a huge role in performance (Vo2, lactate threshold etc)

This is another gear I can uncover and tap into. It's been only a few months, but this has become part of my daily schedule like brushing my teeth.

Like we do dumbbell curls to build biceps, breathing exercises are truly necessary to build better engines for endurance. Efficiency is key. In fact, nose breathing has shown to help release nitric oxide which is a vasodilator, which means it helps to widen blood vessels. This can help improve oxygen circulation in the body.

My routine includes:

  • clearing the nasal pathway,

  • diaphragmatic/belly breathing,

  • pranayama,

  • diaphragm exercise and abdominal muscle control(vaccums),

  • shallow breathing to simulate high intensity situations,

  • expanding lung volume and freeing up the ribcage,

  • breath holding,

  • always making sure exhaling is longer than inhaling even with inhalation very slow,

  • exhaling fully by trying to take out every ounce of air as possible.

The video below is a short snippet of my routine. It takes me 15 to 20 minutes usually. I am still only a few months into breath training and still am a novice. But I am on a quest to untap the full benefits of this.

The benefits I got from this are :

  1. Ability to lower HR at my own will.

  2. Return to fitness after injury was way quicker than expected.

  3. Improvement in bike performance and RPE(rate of perceived exertion) and ability to stay calm/relaxed under heavy load(during a high end interval). More rhythmic in my breathing even at vo2 max intervals.

  4. Lowered HR at submaximal load even with losing fitness due to the injury.

  5. Improvement in swim pace and RPE. Almost 20 seconds faster in 400m in 3 weeks of training after a 8 week injury layoff.

  6. Mental clarity.

  7. Lowered resting HR.

  8. No rapid increase in HR as the workout progresses. It is more steady increase or sometimes I found my HR lower in the last few intervals that the first.

  9. Improved ability to use my air bags(lungs and belly). This is because I feel I can inhale longer and bigger and exhale for even longer in a steady manner. Learning to exhale completely by trying to squeeze out all the air is crucial as residual C02 is a reason why HR can go up.

  10. Higher 20 min, 10 min, 5 min max effort HR. Even better than my pre injury numbers. Meaning I could sustain a higher effort for a given time.

  11. Added mental strength/confidence while going through a hard workout or interval on the bike, run or swim. This is because I know that I have another weapon in my bag to help me get through the hard interval.

Like me, if you don't know where to start or what to start with, start with pranayama and deep breathing. Just focusing on inhaling and exhaling is a perfect start. Any breathing exercise routine small or big makes a difference. Key is to stay consistent and do it regularly without fail! It truly is a game changer.

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