Breathing. A skill we have all known and performed since birth. The simple inhale and exhale of our lungs helps maintain body function and, more importantly, keeps us alive. In terms of athletics, different techniques of breathing can greatly impact how athletes can perform and recover after physical activity.

One of those techniques is circular breathing. While this technique can be seen more often in those who play wind instruments in the local jazz band, it can also provide focus, relaxation, and boost confidence in your performance!

Respiratory System

To better understand how circular breathing works, it's important to recognize what muscles, organs, and other body parts are used to do so. The components of the respiratory system include:

  • Nasal cavity
  • Mouth
  • Pharynx/larynx
  • Windpipe
  • Diaphragm
  • Lungs
  • Bronchi/bronchial tubes
  • Bronchioles
  • Alveoli
  • Capillaries

As you take in a breath through your nose or mouth, the air will travel down your throat to your windpipe, and then divided into the bronchial tubes. These tubes pass through the lungs and divide into smaller channels called bronchioles. The bronchioles end in the small air sacs called alveoli. The alveoli are surrounded by capillaries that pass the inhaled oxygen to the blood.

As the oxygen is absorbed, blood is pumped to the heart where it is then pumped out to the rest of the body’s tissues, organs, and muscles. Once the cells of the organs and tissues use the oxygen, carbon dioxide is then created and pumps into your blood. This blood is then carried back to the lungs, where it is finally removed from the body during exhalation.

Breath In, Breathe Out

As breathing is an autonomous function of the human body, the respiratory system is constantly being used during inhalation and exhalation. The biggest player in this process is the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that sits under the lungs.

During inhalation, the diaphragm pulls downward, effectively pulling air into the lungs. And in exhalation, the diaphragm relaxes and pushes upward, pushing up onto the lungs as they deflate.

What is Circular Breathing?

Though circular breathing can help wind instrument performers play an uninterrupted tone, it can be used in athletics as a form of meditation before, during, and after performance. The process for using circular breathing for meditation purposes involves breathing in slow and deep from your abdomen through your nostrils.

This is followed by breathing out for the same duration from your mouth, with no breaks in between breaths. This meditation breathing has been known to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, cognitive function, and physical performance.

What About Performance Circular Breathing?

Like meditative circular breathing, performance circular breathing helps provide focus and relaxation to an individual, helping them maintain equilibrium and calm.

Just as meditative circular breathing can be used to improve instances of anxiety and depression, performance circular breathing improves an athlete’s chance of remaining focused and relaxed before an upcoming event while simultaneously improving muscle function and endurance.

The technique for performance circular breathing includes:

  • Inhalation through the nose for 3 to 4 seconds
  • 2-second hold of the breath
  • Exhalation through the mouth for 3 to 4 seconds

The holding of the breath forces the muscles in the body to become tense, contract, and hold for several seconds. As you exhale, these muscles relax as you essentially push out the air through your mouth.

Though this kind of breathing may be hard to incorporate quickly into your exercise, practicing the technique can help you breathe more efficiently during your performance.

Let’s Talk Benefits

Just as incorporating circular breathing can help you focus and block out negative thoughts before an event, the physical and mental benefits can be just as rewarding. These benefits include:

  • Increased oxygen to the body’s tissues
  • Relieves tension and reduces muscle tension
  • Stimulates muscle growth and function
  • Decrease feelings of anxiety
  • Improved focus

Read: How to Breathe While Running

Your Lungs Are Your Gas Tank

Your lungs provide the oxygen needed to be sent to your body’s muscles, organs, and other tissues. The more oxygen you take in, the more nutrients can be sent to these tissues. This is made possible by having a strong respiratory system.

Unfortunately, COPD and other lung diseases can harm lung capacity and in turn cause shortness of breath, fatigue, and difficulties with catching one’s breath. Though difficult in cases of lung disease, improving lung capacity and respiratory strength can be enhanced. Especially in cases of performance, being able to perform longer without resting to catch your breath would be ideal if trying to maintain endurance and strength.

One of the newer and more effective ways to improve respiratory strength and lung capacity is the use of a medical breathing device. These masks are usually worn in between workout sessions and essentially provide more resistance on your body’s respiratory system during inhalation and exhalation.

Much like adding more weight to a bench press will require more muscle recruitment to overcome the added weight, this resistance will cause the respiratory muscles to recruit more stimulus and strength to overcome the deficit, which, over time, will improve lung capacity and respiratory strength.

In doing so, athletes can take in more oxygen at a quicker rate which in turn will help them train for longer durations and maintain high levels of performance. These devices can also be used by those suffering from COPD or other lung diseases. Though they may not need an increased lung capacity to go to a CrossFit session, the use of a breathing training device like Airofit can help improve their quality of life.

Take the Breath That Works for You

Whether you’re looking to meditate, improve focus, fight off an anxiety attack, or improve physical performance, breathing techniques are not one-size-fits-all mechanisms.

Circular breathing, interval breathing, or using a medical breathing device are all vital choices in improving lung capacity and respiratory strength. Though one technique may work more for you than another, improving the quality of life and strength has to remain the most important goal.