Lung Health : Focus on Breathing

One of the most important things serious athletes learn very quickly is how to breathe. There's an art to breathing while doing a sport; it's not something that comes naturally. Even athletes gifted enough to make the Olympic team may still need breath coaching.

The first, and most important part, is to remember to breathe. That may sound funny, but forgetting to focus on oxygen intake at the start is a very common athletic mistake. Some folks get so intent on waiting for the signal to GO, that they unconsciously hold their breath.

That means the first stride, the first push or the first pedal comes with an oxygen deficit, followed by a big gasp for breath, an explosive exhale and a brief period of hyperventilation. It greatly disrupts both effort and focus, and is often the cause of a loss. You can tell if you do this, because you'll feel a little breathless just after you start. Think back - do you usually feel a surge of energy as you begin a game or competition - or a drain of energy from a lack of oxygen?

But even a good start isn't enough to win. Some athletes stop focusing on their breathing once things get technical or difficult. Road cyclists in a crowded peleton may hold their breath while taking a sharp corner. Runners may forget to breathe deeply as they break into a hard sprint to the finish. Performance anxiety may hit a peak when the end result is on the line, and that anxiety may interfere with breathing rhythm, even causing some athletes to hold their breath during the final push to the finish.

Learning to focus on breathing is just like building quickness or power; it only comes with constant practice. Use your training time to work on proper breathing. Start, of course, with the start. Get into a rhythm of taking air in and letting it out while you wait to begin. Every breath should be deep and long, at least one second each for the inhale and exhale. You can practice with a count of "one, two," inhale-exhale. That will remind you not to hold your breath. If you have a coach, request that the coach remind you to BREATHE during training. You'll actually hear that voice in your mind when you need it.

Pay attention to your respiration while you're in action. At moments of greatest effort, does your breathing become shallow and choppy? This is another mistake many athletes make; allowing themselves to become distracted at precisely the time when their body most needs consistent oxygenation and removal of spent air. Just as you practice a move until it becomes an instinctive part of your muscle memory, practice proper breathing until it becomes automatic, something so instinctive that you no longer have to think about it.

To get to that place mentally, use one training session a week to focus specifically on breathing. Concentrate on keeping a breathing rhythm as you do a set of resistance exercises with a rest period in between. Think of completely filling your lungs and emptying them with each breath. Just the practice of deep, rhythmic breathing will build the amount of air you can take in; and that by itself will help make you a better athlete.

Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly ( For the latest in adventure sports and physical conditioning, visit Adventure Sports Weekly at

@2012, Adventure Sports Weekly

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