Proper Breathing is Essential for Athletes and Non-Athletes Alike
By Perry Fields, November 4, 2004
Learning and practicing the principles of good health is not an easy process. In fact, it is a process that is overlooked by many people who find themselves in poor health or with indications of poor health, like that migraine you get every now and then.
I am a professional track and field athlete. I run the 800m and 1600m, two grueling events and arguably the toughest races to prepare for and to race in track and field. Believe it or not, I was once 50 lbs overweight, extremely sick with a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome, anemia, ear infections that lasted five years straight, and the list goes on. I went to more than 19 doctors to try to get well. So when I refer to getting or staying well as a “process” I mean just that. Even if you are in totally good health right now, it is important to gain the necessary knowledge and live in such as way as to ensure, as much as possible, continued good health throughout your life.
At the pinnacle of my health crisis (three years ago) I started searching for answers. I kept an open mind about everything and found that conventional medicine just treated symptoms, and that many times, at least in my case, the doctors misdiagnosed what was actually going on. Some doctors, who didn’t have any answers at all, even went so far as to tell me that the problems were just in my mind, implying that I was a bit crazy. In response to this lack of real answers, I went down several alternative paths, and the two that I found most intriguing were kinesiology and breathing. Kinesiology made me aware of a simple problem I had: food allergies. It helped me discover that I am gluten intolerant and allergic to citrus fruit, and eating these foods was making me terribly sick—a fact that had escaped the conventional doctors that I had seen. That was the first major turning point for me. The other occurred this past year, when I discovered the importance of good breathing.
Yep, breathing sounds like a simple concept. Like many people, I just took it for granted. But I suddenly discovered that that way I breathe has a lot of do with my track and field performance, as well as my overall quality of life. In track and field, training is high anxiety. I get on the line at the start of the race and I have seven or more girls who want to pound me physically. But I discovered that I could keep my stress down simply by following the breathing principles I am about to discuss. I now practice these principles not only before racing, but anytime that I find myself a little stressed. The first step is to simply concentrate on my breath, also known as the Pranayan Technique. This simple technique, which involves focusing on my breath and learning to listen to what it is telling me, helps me relax. I do this kind of breathing when I am resting before a race or sitting around waiting to compete. It has its physical benefits as well.
Most of us simply don’t breathe deeply enough. Breathing using all four stages: inhaling, full pause, exhaling, and empty pause helps increase oxygen in the blood. The more oxygen in your blood, the less fatigued and more mentally alert you are. There is a strong connection between respiration and one’s mental state, so it is obviously beneficial for everyone to start working with their breathing. Shallow breathing does not exercise the diaphragm and lungs enough and most people only use a small portion of their lung capacity. In learning to breathe more fully, you will see many benefits whether you are an athlete or a not.
Oxygen in the blood is critical for ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate). ATP is how your body makes energy. Before I do any kind of hard practice, I always make sure to practice healthy breathing to get my body ready to perform. Good breathing is far more important than stretching before running. One misconception about stretching is that it reduces your chance of getting injured while running. The truth is that this has never been proven. Of the studies done on stretching, all of them are inconclusive as to the prevention of injuries, in spite of the fact that you see every sports team on the planet stretching before their games.
Warming-up is the key. Warming-up can be done simply by jogging and doing exercises like jumping jacks. Warming-up the muscles is vital; you can have a successful warm-up just by breathing well, walking, and jogging. Breath comes into play because by breathing deeply and using relevant breathing techniques you are oxygenating your cells. What the heck is more important than oxygenating your cells before a work-out, or, for that matter, before and during a stressful situation in your life? Nothing! It is a very powerful and simple concept, and yet I hear very little, if anything, about it. Knowledge about health issues and creating good health is a journey, a process. You have to be determined to find it.
Many runners and non-runners breathe by expanding their chest, which is sometimes referred to as “high breathing.” This kind of breathing isn’t as effective as relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. When inhaling fully, you should relax your belly so that it can move outward on the in-breath and your diaphragm can expand and move through more of its full range of motion. When exhaling fully, you should allow your belly to retract toward your spine, which supports the diaphragm’s upward movement to help empty the lungs. This is sometimes called “low breathing.”
So, let me briefly tell you how I begin my workouts. If you are a runner or participate in any kind of athletics, try this before you begin your game or work-out. I start by walking before my track workouts and before runs. I usually walk anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes. During the walk I breathe deeply in a steady rhythm, making sure during inhalation that I keep my belly relaxed and allow my diaphragm to expand to its fullest. On the exhalation I breathe out slowly and allow my belly to fully retract. Then, after walking, I begin jogging, but I make sure to jog slower than someone walking. (This type of jogging is an African approach I picked up from my fellow Ethiopian and Kenyan training partners. They do this as a ritual before any type of workout). The two slow movements of walking then slow jogging gives my body time to prepare on a cellular level.
It is important to note that I breathe only through my nose, which as some of you may know filters impurities from the air and can help regulate body temperature. Only during intense track sessions or intense long runs will my mouth ever be open. Even during hard workouts and long runs, I breathe only through my nose for as long as possible. Then, right after a hard interval on the track, I close my mouth and force myself to breathe through my nose using “low breathing.” This helps me recover before I begin another interval, leaving my cells better oxygenated.
In beginning to work in this way I discovered that as the season progressed I was able to run my long runs at a six minute/mile pace (for those who don’t know this is a pretty brisk pace) for up to ten miles, with my mouth closed almost the entire time using “low breathing”! Though you may not be used to it, your body will adapt to breathing only through your nose. By just breathing deeply through your nose, you are decreasing your stress and allowing your body to progress physically on its own. So each time you run or work out in this way, you will notice yourself progressing in your own proper and unique way. Many people have the tendency to over train, which can actually undermine their performance. By practicing breathing through your nose and the other techniques I have described in this article, you are allowing your body to improve its performance in a healthy way that won’t lead to crashing later on.
Breathing properly is so vital to decreasing stress and promoting proper physical stamina and development, that you would think that more people would practice it. It is simple knowledge like this that can keep you fit and healthy for a long time.
Even if I win a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics, it might just be icing on the cake. No one can take my pride away for the determination that I had to search for these types of answers that promoted my health and changed my life forever. It can be a long, intense journey to find the perfect answers, but no one should give up. The information is out there. A smart man or woman knows that their body really is their temple, their foundation; so do everything you can to promote it. Do it—even if it is “simply breathing.”
Originally written for Authentic Breathing® Resources & Authentic Breathing® News. Copyright 2004 by Perry Fields
About the Author
At the time this was written, Perry Fields was a member of the U.S. Track and Field Team and a member of the USATF (United State Track and Field Federation). Perry’s passion is to help people who are unhappy, like she used to be, with their bodies, their health, and their physical and emotional state–by educating and giving guidance through lifestyle changes and keeping them informed about natural methods of disease prevention.
Perry’s incredible journey through illness and “miraculous” body transformations has helped her inspire and guide many people through their own ordeals. Visit Perry Fields’ website for more information, and to learn about her battle with and insights about Lyme Disease.