We hear a lot about the power of breathwork for anxiety and focus but what impact does prioritising breathing have on your capacity to workout? Writer Elizabeth Bennett gave breathwork a go for 14 days and found that there’s a lot more to breathing than we might think.
Breathing might be the most automatic of human functions but it turns out that the majority of us aren’t breathing optimally. It’s thought that 80% of people are chest breathers, and while that might sound normal, it actually means that the majority of us aren’t making the most of our lungs. That has a whole host of ramifications for both physical and mental health, and also our exercise routines.
Luckily, we can learn to breathe better. With many of us searching for ways to find calm amid the madness of modern life, breathwork has grown hugely in popularity in recent times.
“It’s a common pattern to breathe in a shallow manner just into the chest,” explains Charlie Moult, a breathwork coach. “This means we’re not using the lungs’ full capacity and not getting enough oxygen into our lungs, cells and throughout our body.”
That is partly down to stress, says breathwork teacher Alan Dolan: “When we’re under stress, we close down, the ribcage moves inwards and we are restricted.” It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, the more stressed we are, the shallower we breathe but these shallow breaths actual signal to the nervous system we are in danger and activate the fight or flight system which makes us more stressed.
How breathwork can help boost your workout
Breathing in this shallow way impacts every area of our health, including our ability to exercise. Breathing optimally improves our lung capacity and also boosts energy levels. One 2018 study found that 12 weeks of slow breathing exercise training improved cardiovascular health and therefore ability to perform well at cardio-based exercise.
Moult explains how the Bolt score is the gold standard way of measuring our lung capacity: “You take a breath in the nose and then out of the nose and wait until you have the urge to breathe,” she explained. The time from when you breathe out until you have the urge to breathe is measured and defined as your BOLT score.
“The higher your Bolt score, the better you will perform exercise,” she adds. The ideal BOLT score is 40 seconds but genetically some people will be able to breathe better than others. The good news? You can improve your score with breathwork. “Everyone is different. Even some professional athletes don’t have really high scores but it is something that can be developed,” she says.
The breathwork challenge
While much has been written about how breathing techniques can help anxiety and boost energy levels, I wanted to find out if committing to breathwork could improve my exercise routine.
I first discovered breathwork via pranayama exercises in yoga classes, and more recently had dabbled with the Wim Hof breathing method. I loved how breathwork seemed to have an immediate aftereffect that felt more powerful than meditation.
For this challenge, I tried incorporating 10-15 minutes of conscious breathing into my morning routine – which is when I tend to exercise – for two weeks. I alternated between two different breathing exercises: the Conscious Connected Breath and the Wim Hof method. Both involve breathing in and out fully in order to use the maximum lung capacity.
The Conscious Connected Breath method simply involves breathing in and out slowly and deeply, while Wim Hof gets you breathing faster in between doing 60 and 90-second breath holds. I kept my exercise routine roughly the same, exercising three or four times a week with a mixture of yoga and at-home HIIT workouts. I also added in running to see whether the breathing could improve a purely cardio-based exercise. Here’s how I got on.
Breathwork challenge: the results
The first thing I noticed when starting my morning with breathwork was how much more motivated I felt to exercise. When the last thing you feel like doing is putting on your leggings or rolling out your exercise mat, knowing you just have to spend the first 10 or 15 minutes lying down breathing is a welcome relief.
After completing the breathing exercises, I always felt much more awake and ready to tackle the day. From the off, I noticed how much clearer my head felt and how much more keen I was to tackle my workout.
During those Chloe Ting HIIT workouts, I was getting into the exercises quicker and putting more energy into the movements… even when I accidentally selected a video that was longer than my usual.
While I’ve run on and off over the years and took up running again in the lockdown (who didn’t!), it has been at least six months since I’ve laced up my trainers and properly paced the pavements. During my two-week breathing experiment, however, I ran two 5Ks and found that they weren’t as much of a slog as I was expecting. Dare I say it, I even ran them quicker than usual.
During the experiment, my energy was higher, my focus was better and by the time it came to an evening yoga class, I felt more committed to going rather than bailing at the last minute.
Exercise aside, committing to starting each day with breath work has definitely been one of the best things I’ve tried for my wellbeing. It turns out that dedicating the first moments of the morning to simply being in your body and breathing is much better for you than scrolling emails or Instagram.
Why I’m sticking with breathwork as a pre-workout
While it’s impossible to know over a short period (and with many other variable factors) whether breathwork can really improve fitness, the boost to my energy levels has been powerful enough for me to know that this is something worth sticking with.
Only time will tell if committing to practising breathing in this way will improve my breathing overall and therefore my fitness, but for now, I’m glad that this ritual has made its way into my daily regime.
How to get started with breathwork
Put simply, breathwork – sometimes known as conscious breathing – is a practice where you consciously control the breath.
Breathwork exercises (eg breathing deeply, holding the breath or rapid inhales and exhales) can be learned at home via audio or video recordings (YouTube or the Breathwrk app are a good place to start) or via a session with a professional breathwork coach.
These breathing exercises can leave us feeling calmer and better prepared to sleep well, as well as improving focus and boosting energy. Over time, you can train your breathing ‘muscle’ to function better – allowing you to breathe more easily and optimally day to day.
For more challenges, check out the Strong Women Training Club library.