How Deep Breathing Benefits Athletes

Use these breathing techniques to

boost speed and extend endurance.


Breathing is at the center of everything we do. But we often overlook it as an automatic function.

Many of us have been cruising along just fine with shallow breaths, yet for athletes and anyone looking to improve their lifestyle, learning to access deep breathing can — quite literally — open up more quality of life.  

Deep breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, engages the large diaphragm muscles under the lungs. Using this diaphragm reduces the use of less-efficient muscles around the lungs and decreases oxygen demand which can lead to more efficient performance and faster recovery.

By excluding the diaphragm from routine breathing, shallow breathers overuse muscles in the back and neck creating a closed posture and shoulders forward and spine curved. And in a bit of chicken-and-egg cycle, that posture reinforces shallow breathing.

The overuse caused by shallow breathing leads to tension in the back and spine, which is why the first benefit of deep breathing is relaxation. This is why most yoga classes begin and end with breath, to calm the mind and muscles. Learning, or retraining, your body to breathe deep during more intense activities like swimming and running can lead to faster times and longer distances.

Deep Breaths On the Run

Another form of deep breathing is alternate breathing, which was made popular by famed running coach Budd Coates who developed the system over 30 years as a runner and coach.

In his book Running on Air, Coates says runners often run at a pace of two breaths in for two footstrikes and two breaths out for two footstrikes. Runners who consistently land on the same foot as they start to exhale are asking that side of the body to absorb the impact, which can lead to muscle imbalances over time.

A minor, but common examples of this strain is the sensation known as side stitches, which most often occur on the right side of the abdomen because most runners coordinate their exhales with landing on their dominant foot. For the 

diaphragm to relax between breaths, it needs an assist from the abdomen, so don’t slouch on those core workouts.

In the Water

Swimmers try to minimize their time breaking the surface of the water and time their breaths with their stroke. Casual swimmers may note h

ow inefficient they are in the water after a long winter break, which is what happens when the muscles, breath, and brain are out of practice.

In the water, swimmers only have time for short inhalations but can exhale slowly to maximize the time their head remains underwater. Learning to take short but deep breaths through the nose and mouth, and then exhale for several strokes, allows swimmers to stay comfortable, fully oxygenated, and calm while performing at their peak.

To the Extreme

Wim Hof, known for his record-breaking immersions submerged in ice cold water, credits his “Iceman” abilities to his deep breathing. His technique of controlled hyperventilating is similar to forms of yogic breathing, and he and his students usually pair this breathing practice with cold water immersion.

Hof claims his technique bypasses the body’s natural fight-or-flight panic mode by calming the body with deep breaths. Students who learned his deep breathing techniques for 10 days could not only control their breathing, but also affect their immune system and overcome inflammatory reactions. This method is more of a package of practices that compliment each other, but it is an example of the extreme performance benefits that can be untapped with deep breathing.

Recovery and Sleep

Relaxed muscles and a primed response to fend off inflammation help the body streamline its recovery process. Deep breathing also makes it easier to rest and sleep soundly, which is a crucial, if underrated, part of recovery.

Incorporating deep breathing into your athletic pursuit may take some time, as you will have to retrain muscles and your brain. Introduce focused breathing exercises for short periods of time at first, and then introduce the practice into your sport.

Practice Deep Breathing

  1. Lay on your back on a yoga mat or carpeted floor. If that is uncomfortable, you can try it lying with pillows behind your neck or under your knees, or even seated in a comfortable chair.
  2. As your body adjusts, let go of tension in your shoulders and ease them toward your hands.
  3. Place one the hand below your navel and the other on your chest.
  4. As you slowly breathe in through your nose, the hand on your stomach should rise while the hand on your chest remains still.
  5. Exhale slowly through pursed lip and contract your stomach as you exhale. Visualize the belly button compressing down to the floor.
  6. Repeat for five to 10 minutes, focusing on slow deep breaths as you inhale and exhale.
  7. Afterward, go for a run, swim or gym session and check-in with how your body is breathing.