It sounds a bit silly, I know, but there is method to the madness. Breathing is one of the most important elements for any sports person or fitness fanatic but is often overlooked in training.
I know most of you here at the WRAC, working with me out on court, have not heard me speak at length about breathing; however, that does not make it any less important. So how does good breathing technique actually help improve performance? Well, simply put, it helps you stay in the game. Our lungs are amazing tools which help us absorb much-needed oxygen into our bloodstream. A trained athlete will have a higher oxygen-extraction capacity compared to an untrained one. This mechanism improves over time with aerobic training like tennis or a HIIT class (hint!). Once we are able to extract more oxygen into the blood, we will then be able to use that increased supply to reduce lactate accumulation which is linked to fatigue.
Enough about the mechanisms though, what do I actually do to help myself perform better? Well, being the Tennis Pro here, I’ll start with tennis… When watching pro tennis, you might notice players like Simona Halep or Novak Djokovic taking in a big “relaxation” or “preparation” breath before they serve. This is a technique to help lower your blood pressure and heart rate somewhat so our mind can be a fraction clearer which allows our bodies to perform better. They are preparing and resetting themselves for a new point and clear head space to meet their goals for that point. In through the nose, breathing from the diaphragm – allowing your abdominals to rise and fall rather than your chest! – and out through the mouth.
Hint: If you breathe out harder than you breathe in a few deep breaths, you will find you are able to expel the stale air to allow for more oxygen flow into the blood. Thus, improving your mental awareness and performance because when we get tired or out of breath, our technique breaks down!
Finally, what about during a point? Well, this one is a bit more complicated to practice, but is extremely beneficial if done correctly. Some tennis players are famous for making noise or grunting when hitting the ball. This is them breathing. When you hit the ball, release the extreme tension from your body as you make contact and exhale. I personally find a rhythm in inhaling before my opponent hits their shot, then I actually exhale right as they hit (in singles) so I know I have just enough time to inhale before my next shot when I exhale again. Try it. It will work for you once you get the hang of it, I promise. Many players play “tight” and hold their breath, therefore tiring quickly and suffering during longer points.
In general exercise off the tennis court, breathing is just as important. Whether you’re a rower, a runner, a shot-putter, whatever, breathing is key for success. As a runner, I was taught by my dad – who ran cross country – to breathe “In on the left (two steps), out on the left (another two steps) and so on” when running at a decent pace. There are different patterns, but experiment with what works best for you. You will find yourself able to push that little bit more and reap a benefit in improved results!
Breathing through the nose primarily helps temperature regulation when inhaling air and can sometimes help to eliminate a stitch or pain in your side when exercising. Breathe through it if you can, and it will slowly diminish; if not, a little rest will do the trick too. Swimming is an exception to this rule - when possible, try to breathe through the nose and out the mouth. Finally, I see a lot of people in the gym here at the WRAC, but I don’t notice too many people breathing through their repetitions. One of my personal goals is to get super-fit again this summer (once snowboard seasons is over!) and lifting heavy is a priority for me. Once you feel comfortable going heavier or more intensely (both with or without oxygen system usage) your breathing helps regulate blood pressure, taking pressure off our precious arteries.
The two things I want you to take away from breathing during lifting are simply breathe out on the concentric (hard part) muscle movement, and breathe in during the eccentric phase (easy part) of a movement. For a bodyweight squat, for example, you would breathe in as you go down and breathe out as you come up at a comfortable pace. The same idea goes for bench press: In on ‘down’ (eccentric movement – muscle that is being worked lengthening), out on ‘up’ (concentric – muscle resisting the weight is shortening). The second thing is called the “Valsalva” maneuver,which simply means “holding one’s breath.” This is where a power lifter holds their breath when going very heavy on a weighted repetition during a motion to improve chest and core stability, and this is okay. For most lifters who are not powerlifters – almost all of us reading this article - Keep breathing.
☺ See you on the court, in the gym, around the club, or up the mountain.