Breathing to Boost Performance


In one of my recent articles I discussed how breathing properly is a great tool for reducing stress. After posting the article I was asked how breathing could effect performance. Specifically why someone feels stronger through "Chi" cultivating excercises. Whether you use the term Chi or not we have all felt the effects. 

As a runner, swimmer, and all around athlete I have been observing my breathing for many years now. I think most atheltes can attest to the notion that when they are having an off day they "just can't catch their breath". Miss a breath in a stroke and lose time on your split. Tightness in your chest that reduces breathing range? Lose time. 

But what about quantifying what causes this performance gap? 

Lets start with a few principles that setup the discussion. First, Oxygen is very important for producing energy in the body. Without Oxygen your body has to find alternative, less efficient means of keeping you going. This aneorobic method causes lactic acid buildup, which is what makes us sore after a strenuous workout (and makes some of us regret the extra set). As the body begins to lose oxygen priority is given to the brain and major organs so the limbs are the first to get exhausted. 

Cultivating Chi oxygenates the body for a performance gain.

The majority of Chi excercises (Qi Gong) emphasize breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth while performng a series of movements. The goal is to align the body, breath, and mind for health, meditation, and martial training. India, a neighbor to China, has a similar concept to Chi called Prana. In Yoga you practice proper breathing while holding a particular pose or "flowing" through a series of poses. Maybe the ancient Yogi's and Qi Gong masters knew a thing or two about what was good for the body. They didn't need science to tell them that they felt better when cultivating Chi or Prana. Are a few billion people wrong?

Does Chi / Prana stack up against modern science?

As usual there is someone researching this topic. Dr. Mitch Lomax has been working on the effects of IMT (Inspiratory Muscle Training) since at least 2010. The inspiratory muscles include any of the muscles involved in human respiration and, in this case, she has been studying the effects of performance in runners. She used three groups. One control group, one taught breathing warmup excercises, and one taught warmup and training exercises. The results are impressive. 

In conclusion, inspiratory muscle training and inspiratory muscle warm-up can both increase running distance independently, but the greatest increase is observed when they are combined.

More specifically the experimental group showed a 14.9% boost in performance when the warmup and training exercises were combined. That is certainly outside of statistical noise. Impressive? Well, how about one more study that backs up the notion that Chi cultivating can boost oxygen levels. 

For anyone who has ever been at altitudes above 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) you know it can cut short your breath. If you try running you simply feel tired. But can you train people to breathe better? Does it have an effect? In Dr. Lomax's study on the effects on arterial oxygen they learned that IMT could  effect blood oxygenation when altitudes exceded 4880 meters and 5550 meters. The group trained in IMT saw a 6% blood oxygenation boost compared to the control group. I don't know about you, but I've hiked up mountains as high as 4,400 meters and I'd love a little extra oxygen. 6% is very significant. 

What does this have to do with Chi?

Similarly to Qi Gong the studies I cited use a specific form of breath training. Breath is life according to Qi Gong practitioners. Chi is described as "circulating", just as blood circulates. If your blood is more oxygenated, your muscles can create energy more efficiently, and you can feel the effects of the breathwork. Qi Gong also emphasizes the physical aspects of training. For instance, remaining loose and limber, which allows blood / oxygen to move through the body easily. Take for example this video from the highly educated Dr. Yan, Jwing-Ming

Note that the training relies on breathwork and relaxation for "faster recovery, better balance, stronger immune system increase stamina, ability to hit with more force". All of these benefits could be explained by better blood oxygenation. We can also take a look at Rickson Gracie, the legendary full contact fighter. His strategy is very similar... breath work, relaxation, and meditation techniques to improve performance. 

While the methods may be slightly different they both incorporate the same concepts. Breathing, relaxation, and meditation is, and has been, an integral component of combat for a long time. Specifically Rickson says:

When you control your breath you can actually control yourself mentally and physically
----Rickson Gracie

Aside from the calming mental benefit we can confidently say that there are performance related gains to Chi Cultivation. So keep on practicing. And if anyone questions your reasoning keep on breathing, remain calm, and get a 15% boost in workout performance to burn off the frustration. 

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