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Breathwork for Performance

Breathwork for Performance

16 May 2024



In the world of sports and fitness, optimising physical performance is a constant pursuit. From professional athletes to everyday fitness enthusiasts, the quest to improve endurance, strength, and overall athletic capacity is relentless. Among the myriad of techniques and training methods, breathwork emerges as a surprisingly powerful tool. This ancient practice, which focuses on controlling the breath, has profound implications not only for mental and spiritual well-being but also significantly enhances physical performance.

In this  article, we will delve into the science of how breathwork can boost athletic capabilities. We will explore various facets of this practice, including its impact on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), its correlation with maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max),the Bohr effect, and the role of breath holds and core training in enhancing performance. Whether you are a seasoned athlete or a fitness novice, understanding these aspects of breathwork will open new avenues for achieving your physical best.

Understanding Breathwork

Breathwork refers to any practice that involves consciously manipulating breathing patterns to influence the mental, physical, and spiritual state. Its roots can be traced back to ancient traditions such as Pranayama in yoga, which emphasizes the control of breath to enhance life energy or "prana." In the realm of sports, breathwork is employed not just for relaxation and recovery, but also to boost performance and endurance through improved respiratory mechanics and increased mental focus.

The basic physiological mechanisms influenced by breathwork include increased lung capacity, enhanced oxygen utilization, and improved autonomic nervous system regulation. These changes contribute significantly to athletic performance by optimizing energy production and efficiency during physical exertion.


The Borg Test and Its Significance


The Borg Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale is an invaluable tool in the world of athletics. Developed by Swedish scientist Gunnar Borg in the 1960s, this scale provides a subjective method for measuring the intensity of an exercise. The Borg Scale ranges typically from 6 to 20, where 6 means no exertion at all and 20 signifies maximal effort. What makes this scale particularly useful is its surprising correlation with the athlete's heart rate; a Borg score multiplied by 10 is often closely related to the actual heart rate during physical activity.

Application in Training

Athletes and coaches use the Borg Scale to plan and adjust training sessions. By quantifying how hard an individual feels they are working, it allows for real-time adjustments to training intensity. This subjective measure helps in preventing overtraining and ensuring that athletes are working within their optimal range for endurance and strength building.

Breathwork and the Borg Scale

Integrating breathwork into training can profoundly influence an athlete's perception of exertion. Techniques such as paced breathing or diaphragmatic breathing can help lower the perceived effort of a workout, allowing athletes to perform at higher intensities for longer durations. The calming effect of controlled breathing also reduces stress and anxiety, which can affect an athlete’s RPE, making challenging sessions more manageable.

VO2 Max Explained

VO2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is the maximum rate at which an athlete's body can consume oxygen during exercise. It's a key indicator of aerobic endurance and overall cardiovascular fitness. Essentially, a higher VO2 max means an athlete can utilize more oxygen, which enhances their ability to perform sustained exercise.

Impact of Breathwork on VO2 Max

Breathwork can play a critical role in improving VO2 max. Techniques that improve the efficiency of the breathing process can enhance oxygen delivery and usage in the body. For example, practices that increase lung capacity and strengthen the respiratory muscles can directly contribute to higher VO2 max levels.

Studies and Evidence

Studies have demonstrated that athletes who engage in regular breathwork exercises show significant improvements in VO2 max. These exercises train the body to operate more efficiently under stress, reducing the oxygen cost of exercise and allowing for better performance.

The Bohr Effect and Athletic Performance

The Bohr Effect, named after Danish physiologist Christian Bohr in 1904, describes how blood pH levels and carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations influence the release of oxygen from hemoglobin. This physiological phenomenon is crucial for athletes, as it regulates oxygen delivery to the muscles during intense exercise.

Physiological Mechanics

When CO2 levels in the blood increase, the pH decreases, causing hemoglobin to release oxygen more readily. Conversely, when CO2 levels drop, hemoglobin holds onto oxygen more tightly. Effective breathwork can manipulate these mechanisms, optimizing oxygen delivery during workouts or competitions.

Breathwork to Leverage the Bohr Effect

Athletes can use specific breathwork techniques to increase their CO2 tolerance, thereby enhancing their body's ability to deliver oxygen where it’s most needed during exercise. Techniques such as controlled, slow breathing or brief breath holding after an exhale can elevate CO2 levels in the blood, activating the Bohr Effect to facilitate greater oxygen release.

Practical Exercises

Including exercises like 'cadence breathing' (inhaling and exhaling to a specific count) during training can help athletes train their bodies to maintain higher CO2 levels, improving their oxygen efficiency. These methods are particularly beneficial in endurance sports, where oxygen utilization directly correlates with performance.

Understanding the BOLT Score

The BOLT (Body Oxygen Level Test) score is another critical measure in breathwork, particularly within the Buteyko breathing method. Developed by Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, the BOLT score measures the time interval a person can comfortably hold their breath after a normal exhale. This score reflects an individual's sensitivity to CO2 and their overall breathing efficiency.

Significance in Training

A higher BOLT score indicates a better ability to tolerate CO2 and a more efficient breathing pattern. For athletes, improving the BOLT score can lead to significant enhancements in performance, particularly through better management of breath during high-intensity activities.

Improving the BOLT Score

Regular breathwork practice that emphasizes slow breathing, controlled breath holds, and relaxation can improve the BOLT score. For athletes, focusing on exercises that gradually increase breath-hold times can help in building tolerance to higher CO2 levels, leading to better oxygenation during physical exertion.

Breath Holds and Their Role in Performance

Breath holding is not just a technique used by free divers and swimmers; it's increasingly recognized as a powerful tool for enhancing athletic performance across a variety of sports. This practice involves holding one's breath for extended periods during training, which can induce physiological changes beneficial for athletes.

Benefits of Breath Holds

  1. Increased EPO Production: Holding the breath, especially during physical exertion, can stimulate the production of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that increases red blood cell count, improving oxygen delivery and endurance.
  2. CO2 Tolerance: As discussed with the BOLT score, increasing CO2 tolerance through breath holds enhances the Bohr Effect, allowing more efficient oxygen utilization by the muscles.
  3. Mental Resilience: Breath holding also trains the mind, improving focus and stress management during competitive situations.

Training Techniques

Incorporating breath holds into training can be done through exercises like hypoxic training, where athletes perform sets of physical activity with limited oxygen intake. This method is particularly popular among endurance athletes looking to boost their performance in low-oxygen conditions.

Safety Considerations

While effective, breath hold training must be approached with caution to avoid risks such as hypoxia (dangerously low body oxygen). Athletes are advised to practice under the supervision of qualified professionals who can provide guidance based on individual health and fitness levels.

Core Training and Breathwork

The core muscles play a crucial role in almost every aspect of physical performance, acting as a central link between the upper and lower body. Breathwork can significantly enhance core training by linking breathing techniques with core muscle activation.

Connection Between Breath Control and Core Stability

Proper breathing techniques, like diaphragmatic breathing, engage and strengthen the core muscles. This engagement is critical for maintaining balance and stability during athletic movements.

Exercises for Combining Breathwork and Core Training

  1. Planks with Focused Breathing: Performing planks while practicing deep, controlled breaths helps to maintain posture and increases the endurance of core muscles.
  2. Yoga-Based Movements: Many yoga poses combine deep breathing with core stabilization, providing a dual benefit of relaxation and strength building.

Benefits for Athletes

Stronger core muscles enhanced by effective breath control can lead to improved posture, better injury prevention, and greater efficiency in movement, all crucial for optimal performance in any sport.


Integrating breathwork into athletic training offers a multifaceted approach to enhancing physical performance. From improving VO2 max and leveraging the Bohr Effect to increasing CO2 tolerance and strengthening the core, the benefits are profound and well-documented. As research continues to evolve, so too will the techniques and applications of breathwork in sports science. Athletes looking to gain a competitive edge should consider exploring breathwork under professional guidance to tailor practices that best fit their individual needs and performance goals.