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Respiration For Sports Performance: How to Breathe Better

No matter how much or how seriously you play sports, you’re likely always looking for a way to play better. So, stop, take a deep breath in, hold for 4 seconds and then breathe out - this could be the answer you are looking for. Supporting the body’s ability to respire effectively, which is essential for providing oxygen to the body, can help to power your sport performance.

What is the respiratory system?

Any attempt at improving breathing to help enhance sports performance has to start with a discussion of the system that makes that happen: the respiratory system.

The respiratory system in the body is the part that helps the body breathe. There are a few main parts of the respiratory system - not only the lungs, but also the airways and the muscles that enable the lungs to work.

The lungs are located inside of the chest cavity and sit on either side of the breastbone. Both lungs are divided into lobes, the right lung has three lobes and is slightly bigger than the left lung, which only has two lobes. The lungs are considered organs, just like the heart and the stomach and are made of pinkish-grey spongy textured tissue.

The airways are pipes that help transport air from outside the body into the lungs, and carbon dioxide out of the lungs. There are multiple of these airways in the body:

  • The mouth
  • The nose and its linked air passages (the nasal cavity and the sinuses)
  • The larynx (voice box)
  • The trachea (windpipe)
  • The bronchial tubes (bronchi) and attached branches
  • The bronchioles (small tubes that branch off the bronchial tubes)

The importance of the circulatory system in breathing

The respiratory system wouldn’t be able to work if it wasn’t for its complimentary system, the circulatory system.

The circulatory system, which is composed of the heart, veins, capillaries, and arteries, is essential for the functioning of the respiratory system. It is responsible for bringing blood both to and from the lungs while also delivering oxygen and nutrients to all of the tissues in the body. It also removes carbon dioxide and other waste products, so that toxins don’t build up in the body and cause problems.

How does breathing happen?

Although breathing is something we (mostly) do unconsciously, it is far more complicated of a process than it is given credit for.

As we breathe in, air from the environment enters through either the nose or the mouth. This process both wets and warms the air as it enters, which is essential to stop the irritation that cold, dry air often causes. The air then moves further into the airways, past the larynx (voice box) and down the trachea (windpipe).

As the air reaches the end of the trachea, it divides into two bronchial tubes which each enter a lung. The bronchial tubes are held open by cartilage. As the bronchial tubes enter into the lungs, they divide even further, branching into thousands of bronchioles (small, thin tubes). Unlike the bronchial tubes, bronchioles do not contain cartilage to help them stay open. This allows the bronchioles to widen or narrow as needed to control the flow of air.

At the very end of each bronchiole is an alveoli (a tiny, round air sac). In fact, there are around 150 million of them in the body! They are elastic in nature and the inside is coated in surfactants to help them stay open. The outside of each alveoli is covered in capillaries (tiny blood vessels, which are part of the circulatory system). The junction of the two is called the lung interstitium, which is where the capillaries connect to the rest of the circulatory system.

The circulatory system also uses the pulmonary artery to deliver blood that needs oxygen (and is full of carbon dioxide) to those capillaries. Once it reaches them, the carbon dioxide inside the blood is transferred into the alveoli, which then pushes oxygen back into the blood once again.

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Sports performance

With that information, let’s look at what exactly defines sports performance.

Sports performance generally consists of four different dimensions - endurance, skill, strength, and recovery. Depending on the sport that you are involved in, each of these dimensions is involved in a different way.

Endurance is likely one of the most important out of the four dimensions. When athletes talk about their endurance, they are talking about a combination of two different elements: muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance. Both play very important parts of being able to perform at the highest level possible.

Recovery is also important, nearly as much as endurance. While it doesn’t affect you as you actually play the sport, it is cumulative.

If your body doesn’t recover quickly or safely, it will be more tired when you try to play again. That can also lead to injuries and reduced performance. That’s why there is such a focus on sports performance and healthy ways for natural sports performance enhancement, like supplementation that may help to replenish energy so that the body can recover better.

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How to breathe better

While breathing is automatic, there are ways to help support the respiratory system so that it can better oxygenate the body.

Supplements for heart health are just one way that some people choose to do that. Ingredients like modified CoQ10, L-Carnitine, magnesium, and vitamin D3 can all work together to support healthy heart function, and thus, support optimal cardiovascular performance.

Making sure that the circulatory system is functioning at its optimal level is a great place to start. Without the circulatory system, as we discussed above, the body wouldn’t be able to sufficiently oxygenate the tissues in the body. This may lead to the muscles getting fatigued much quicker, which leads to seriously reduced endurance.

In addition, serious athletes may also be prone to having lower levels of iron and ferritin in their bloodstream, which some scientists believe may be related to the loss of iron in the sweat when they play. Supplementing with additional iron can be helpful to return those levels to normal, which can further help oxygenate the blood appropriately.

Also, while it may be awkward at first, focusing more on your actual breathing when you play sports can help. During exercise, the body naturally produces increased levels of carbon dioxide. That makes it equally as important to spend time focusing on breathing out for the same amount of time as you breathe in. That means that an equal amount of oxygen is going into your system as the carbon dioxide that is leaving.

However, that is often way easier said than done. Instead of trying to literally count your breaths or the seconds that you’re breathing in and out, try to instead focus on slow, steady out breaths instead of just puffing out air.

Mouth breathing versus nose breathing

There are some people who believe that they key to healthy respiration is in exactly how you breathe. During exercise, we often stop paying attention to our breathing. However, during respiration, you are actually able to take in far more oxygen through the mouth.

If you’re playing and you feel like you’re suddenly not able to take in enough air, try to breathe more through your mouth. Breathing through your mouth and exhaling through the nose can help the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance and allow you to take in more oxygen to help the muscles perform.

However, those who are prone to hyperventilation may not want to breathe through their mouths as frequently. Because of the amount of air that you are able to intake when breathing through the mouth, it may trigger hyperventilation.

Focus on the diaphragm

The diaphragm is also important in helping both the circulatory and respiratory systems provide the tissues with everything they need to elevate sports performance.

Often, when left to the unconscious mind, we tend to let the breathing happen in the chest instead of where it should be occurring: the diaphragm. When taking deep breaths, make sure to focus on breathing into your stomach instead of into the chest.

Essentially, the stomach should rise with each inhale, and the chest should fall with each exhale. Use the muscles in the stomach to help push the air back out as well, and focus on taking slow, deliberate breaths.

This may be a hard thing to achieve when you’re in the middle of playing a sport. Working on it outside of active exercise can help. Try some working on diaphragmatic exercise while lying in bed at night. Being able to put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach and physically feel the rise and fall will help you when you take that breathing back into the sports world.

Summary

It doesn’t matter whether you are a recreational or professional athlete, focusing on breathing can make a huge difference to your sports performance. This could be through training your body to breathe more efficiently or by taking a supplement that can help to support the heart, lungs, respiratory or circulatory systems in your body. By effectively oxygenating your body, you will start to notice an improvement not only in your muscular and cardiovascular endurance but your recovery as well.

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