Breathwork Basics for Your Athletes

ABOUT THE EXPERT

Kasper van der Meulen

Kasper is a biohacker, breathing specialist and bestselling author. He combines his experience as a science teacher with a self-experimental mindset to optimise mind and body. He travels the world to share these principles of human optimisation though conscious and strategic breathing with high performers of all kinds.

// Breathwork Basics for Your Strength Training Athletes

We sat down with expert Kasper Van Der Meulen to get the lowdown on implementing breathwork into your athletes workouts. We gathered his expertise and experience to provide our readers with the basics of breathwork.

For several years, my brother and I ran our gym like two separate entities. In his room, he focused on developing strength and power, while in mine, I introduced clients to breathwork, meditation, and self-awareness. Eventually, we decided it was high time that we broke down that dividing wall – philosophically and literally – and merge our two practices into one with Move Lift Act Breathe in Utrecht. A primary reason is that everything is everything. And in thinking about it from a purely physiological standpoint, our entire being begins with breathing. In this article, I’m going to share what I’ve learned about breathwork basics for your athletes that want to go harder, higher, and faster for longer. Upregulate and downregulate their state either side of their performance to game their nervous system. This is what I work on with athletes when they come to my breathwork masterclass.

Breathing for the State You Want

There are two branches of the autonomic nervous system. We often equate a sympathetic state with “fight, flight, or freeze,” while referring to a parasympathetic state as “rest and digest” for simplicty’s sake. Athletes need to elevate their nervous systems to a certain degree to achieve peak performance, which is what the typical pre-workout or pre-game warmup seeks to achieve. But if they exhibit sympathetic behavior with telltale signs like their shoulders cramping, face tensing, and excessive pacing back and forth, they can go too far into the sympathetic side. In which case, the bar is now the predator, and they’re the prey (the exact opposite of what you want). They can also expend too many of their physiological resources before even beginning, meaning that instead of being revved up, they’re already worn out. 

While some level of sympathetic stimulation is preferable for strength, power, and speed-focused sessions, the athlete also needs a certain level of calm from which to activate themselves. This means producing a sufficient amount of carbon dioxide to allow optimal oxygen uptake to fuel your cells. You can achieve this sweet spot by manipulating your breath to get you into the state that you need or want to be in. Remember that for maximal activation of any bodily system, you need to start from a place of calm. 

It’s also worth considering what a sustainable breathing pattern is going to look and feel like once you get into the activity you’re about to perform. All too often, athletes don’t consider this in advance, and let the proverbial tail wag the dog, instead of the other way around. For example, perhaps you start a sprint and hold your breath for too long. From an energy systems perspective, you can get away with this for a while when it’s primarily the alactic pathway supplying your fuel. But once you cross over into the aerobic system, then you’re likely to experience oxygen deficit and so start huffing and puffing to try and compensate. However, while this might allow you to take in more oxygen, it won’t enable you to produce sufficient carbon dioxide. So you start breathing even faster and heavier, all the while fatiguing yourself excessively. Once you get to the point that you’re out of breath, you are out of control.

Stay in Control

A preferable approach is for you to remain in control of your breath and, therefore, your physiology and state. This way, you’re doing things actively, rather than allowing them to be done to you. To achieve this, you should envisage the breathing pattern that will sustain you throughout the duration of the sprint, lift, carry, or whatever activity you’re about to participate in. Then simulate this before you begin, so that your nervous system is primed to execute it when it’s go time. This will likely require some self-experimentation and figuring out the difference between optimal and sub-optimal breathing patterns. Patience and self-awareness are crucial here. You can also enlist a coach to help you figure out the best way to breathe during a particular movement. 

This isn’t just relevant to the weight room, but also to the playing field. In football, a receiver must choose a breath pattern that allows him to not only sprint and leap to catch a pass from the quarterback, but also brace to withstand impact from onrushing defenders as he’s running at top speed. This breath pattern might resemble the puffing of a steam train. Or in MMA, if a fighter is getting choked and can relax in this position because she’s breathing calmly through her nose, she might be able to outlast her opponent’s grip and then apply force to break the choke hold at just the right moment. You need to breathe for the state you’re creating before the body needs you to, rather than reacting when things start to fall apart.

Brace for Impact

If you’re familiar with the work of Kelly Starrett (author of Becoming a Supple Leopard, Waterman 2.0, etc.), you will likely have heard the term “bracing strategy” quite often. This involves several different steps, including activating musculature before you begin an exercise, starting with limbs and joints in the proper places for optimal movement quality, and maintaining the right amount of stability throughout the rep in the pelvic floor, obliques, and so on. Yet without breath control, we often see an athlete’s bracing strategy fall apart in the part of the exercise where the weight feels the heaviest. A prime example is when someone starts a squat strong but falls apart when in the bottom position (the hole), making it difficult to drive back up and rack the bar, and sometimes necessitating the intervention of a spotter. 

The key to overcoming a force leak is often marshalling your breath more effectively. We have inspiratory and expiratory muscles that we can call upon to create and maintain a stable core. Also, it’s worth noting that the diaphragm that acts like a bellows for your lungs attaches to several different soft tissue structures on the front, back, and sides of the body. When we mouth breathe – as often happens in stressful situations like having 400 pounds across your shoulders – we largely take the diaphragm out of the equation. So a crucial part of any lifter’s bracing strategy should be taking a nice, big, diaphragm-driven nasal inhale before they start any weighted movement.

Coming Back Down

High-intensity training is inherently sympathetic. During it, your body is running at 7,000 RPM like Christian Bale’s Ford GT40 in Ford v Ferrari, and it needs to brake so you can stop at the end of the race. The first step in doing so is taking a conscious moment after you’ve finished your session to transition back to a parasympathetic state. This way, you will be able to kickstart recovery, digest your post-workout meal or shake more effectively, and sleep more restfully that night. 

One of my favorite post-workout breath practices for after a power, speed, or strength workout is to simply take 10 breaths. The inhale is nasal, and the exhale sounds like a sigh of relief. I try to consciously increase the length of each successive exhale. 

To summarize, there are three stages to optimal breathing before, during, and after a training session or competition. First, breathe for the state you want to be in. Second, when the session starts, use your breath to help you brace for stable, sustainable movement. Third, deactivate your nervous system by controlling your breathing and lengthening your exhales. Perform this simple sequence and you should find improvements in both performance and recovery.

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