Don’t Hide How Hard You’re Breathing

Breathing heavily when you exercise is not a problem and certainly not a cause for embarrassment. In fact, it is essential for a good workout! Unless you have an underlying medical problem, heavy breathing is simply the body’s way of getting more oxygen to your hard-working cells.

Over the last few years, I have seen, read and heard far too many people talking about whether you should breathe through your nose or your mouth while you exercise. This strange argument reminds me of the minimalist running shoe craze – in that, they have it back-assward.

Look at it like this:

  • Think about how long each day (or week) you exercise hard enough to increase your breathing. Now think about how long each day you simply breathe. Got it?
  • Now think about how long each day you wear your exercise/running shoes. And then think about how long you wear your “regular” shoes.

If you want to make an appreciable difference in the health of your feet or how your breathing affects your CNS (central nervous system) which time of day do you think would be most effective to focus on?

So while yes, I believe there is sufficient evidence and science to support the idea that shoes which are WTF (wide, thin and flat) are essential for good foot health and I agree that deep nasal diaphragmatic breathing is essential for a healthy body, trying to run barefoot or only breathe through your nose while exercising is a fool’s errand.

Remember, our bodies adjust to what we do with them the most, not just to what we do with them for at a gym, studio, track or otherwise. Our biology doesn’t differentiate.

So instead, I suggest we focus on breathing well in the 23.5 hours we are not exercising. And focus on allowing our feet to move correctly when we are not applying 3-8 times our body weight to your footfall. This approach will get us a lot farther and result in less frustration and injury.

Ok, now that I have that out of the way…

Let’s focus on an issue that I see all too often when I am out training with groups of fitness enthusiasts – the desire to never let anyone see you breathing too hard.

This is a particular issue that appears in us humans sometime in our teens and, with few exceptions, spills into our adult years. In general, the only people I see allowing their bodies to grab onto the greatest amount of oxygen possible are children and pro athletes. The rest of us seem to view it as some sort of indication that we are “out of shape” or something to be embarrassed or ashamed of. So, instead of giving out body what it needs, we suppress the natural desire to suck in more air and I think that is holding us back from reaching our full potential. 

Why We Breathe Hard

Basically, when you feel the need to breathe heavier during exercise, it is a sign that your body needs more oxygen because you are asking your muscles to work harder. It is purely a physiological process that everyone goes through. During exercise, your heart and the lungs really get to show off. Your lungs gather the oxygen for your body, providing energy and removing carbon dioxide (the byproduct created when you produce energy). Then your heart pumps that oxygen out and around to all the muscles that are doing the exercise.

Obviously, when you are exercising, your muscles need to work harder than when they are at rest, so your body devours more and more oxygen while also producing more and more carbon dioxide. In order to deal with this increased demand, your breathing rate and depth must increase.

For the general population, breathing rate will go up from about 15 times a minute when you are taking it easy, to about 50 times a minute when you are going hard. At the same time, your circulation speeds up, so your blood can usher the oxygen to the muscles so that they can keep performing at their peak.

The process called Cellular Respiration is how your muscles use oxygen to produce energy (ATP). This process is actually surprisingly simple: your body grabs oxygen from the air you breathe, it enters the bloodstream through your lungs, it gets carried to your muscles, some is used right away, and some is stored in a substance called myoglobin. Even if you are not exercising, the oxygen you breathe into your body is used to break down glucose to create ATP (fuel) for your muscles.

What happens when you restrict your breathing, in a vain attempt to appear superhuman, is that your body runs out of oxygen and can’t deliver it to your muscles.

Your poor muscles then begin converting glucose into lactic acid instead of ATP and anaerobic (meaning “without oxygen”) exercise begins. When that happens your power output plummets and fatigue takes hold because anaerobic exercise can only be sustained for two minutes or less, even by professional athletes. 

So, if you think about it, if you are limiting how hard you are allowing yourself to breathe you are also limiting your athletic performance—and even your non-athletic performance. Just think how much faster and happier you could climb that set of stairs at work if you weren’t so busy trying to suppress the urge to breathe deeply! 

Self Experiment

Next time you go out for a measurable workout like a sprint for a particular distance, a hill climb on your bike, or a lap in the pool, I want you to fool around with different breathing patterns, depths, and frequencies and see how drastically it can affect your performance.

I recently challenged myself to focus on getting as much air into my lungs as possible (no matter who could hear me heaving) while cycling up a huge hill that I practice on quite often. (Often enough that I have it set as a “segment” in my Strava app, which simply keeps a log of how your performance stacks up against previous efforts in the same location.) And you know what? I was immediately 13 seconds faster on that climb than I had ever been. And my head did not explode when I reached the top. Nor did my lungs

Sure, part of my success may have been because I had shifted my focus from “how much my legs were burning” to “how hard my lungs were working” but it is certain that by giving my burning leg muscles the oxygen they needed to get the job done, I was setting myself up for success.

And none – I repeat none – of my fellow riders make any derogatory remarks about how “out of shape” I sounded when they finally caught up to me at the top of the hill.

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