My Personal Case Study Using Advanced Breathing to Gain a Competitive Edge in Sports Performance
My Personal Experience Using Breathing Dynamics to Achieve a Top Ten Finish at The Molokai World Sursfski Championships
In 2010 I studied the science of breathing, qualified as a respiratory therapist and started working clinically with asthma & breathing difficulties, snoring & sleep apnoea, fatigue, anxiety, sinusitis etc., plus working with athletes I coach on performance breathing. I was seeing great results both clinically and with athletes.
In 2012 I decided to take on the Molokai Surfski Challenge – my first venture at this event.
At 53km from Molokai Island to Oahu Island across the Kaiwi Channel (The Channel of Bones), the Molokai Surfski Challenge is the ocean paddling equivalent to the Kona Hawaii Ironman triathlon – the unofficial world endurance championship. Like Kona, Molokai is the bucket list event of all ocean paddlers, and probably the toughest race in the world, often with big seas and winds, and a lot of heat and humidity to contend with also.
I had 16 weeks to prepare, so it presented a fantastic opportunity to train my body to breathe optimally (using the diaphragm to drive breathing and mostly the nose on inhalation & exhalation) at higher levels of exertion. And at 45 years of age, I figured it was worth exploring a natural competitive edge as I didn’t have the strength or speed that I had when I was younger, or the time to train as much as I used to.
So this presented a fantastic opportunity to see explore how much more I could gain in performance by learning how to breathe optimally whilst competing in the sport I was once at elite level in.
In my youth I had been an Australian representative at the World Sprint Kayak Championships and a national medallist in surf lifesaving competition in Australia. Unfortunately my career at international level was cut short in my early 20s by illness – what we now know as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or post viral syndrome.
So I was a very capable paddler in sprint or middle distance with my best races being in the 1-3 minute range. I was more a sprinter or high lactic tolerance paddler, rather than a paddler with a high VO2 max. I wasn’t a great at time trials over a distance or a great marathon paddler (unless I could sit on a wash and sprint off at the end).
As such, I knew that doing an endurance race, particularly against the best marathon ocean paddlers in the world, would not be my forte.
But I grew up surfing and paddling in the ocean, and the Molokai race happens at a time of the year when the Hawaiian trade winds blow consistently in a particular direction, it is typically a downwind event where you surf the wind runs and ground swells, gathering great speeds.
As I love surfing and downwind paddling, I couldn’t wait to do a race on one of the best downwind courses in the world. And exploring how much extra I could gain in performance from the breath training excited me also.
The objective with breath training for sporting performance is to:
Breathe predominantly using the nose, only using the mouth in emergencies, or if the exertion level becomes extreme – indications from what I’d experienced, as well as with other athletes who have explored performance breathing during exercise suggest that it is possible to nose breathe up to about 90% of max heart rate, suggesting that this is ideal especially for endurance sports. For people doing sports that involve intervals of sprinting interspersed with rest periods at random; i.e. football, hockey, basketball, etc etc; will find it harder to nose breath all the time, however there are still significant benefits to be gained by breathing only using the nose when recovering between sprints.
Use the diaphragm to initiate inhalation – the chest is also used during exercise, but most huff and puff with their chest only. The diaphragm is the primary breathing muscle, and it is far more efficient to breathe using the diaphragm only at rest, and initially during low-level exercise, and then using the chest in addition to the diaphragm as exertion levels increase.
“Essentially, less is better with breathing for performance. That is, a slower breathing rate and lower breathing volume – be it at rest of during the exertion of sports performance. This is counterintuitive, as we want to huff and puff more the harder it gets, thinking that we’re sucking more oxygen in.But huffing and puffing reduces breathing efficiency, as it reduces the amount of oxygen that actually reaches your cells for energy production – which is the purpose of breathing in the first place. Whereas reducing the breathing rate and volume, will increase oxygen delivery to cells for energy production, and therefore efficiency in performance.It is very difficult initially without training to breathe less whilst exercising (or even at rest), but the benefits are worth the effort.”
The benefits of nose & diaphragm breathing, or performance breathing during exercise include:
Using greater lung surface area for gas exchange
More efficient oxygen delivery to cells for energy production
Learning how to breathe at lower breathing & heart rates at high levels of exercise
Delaying lactic acid onset
Reducing recovery times between efforts
Increasing relaxation during exercise
Allowing greater access to ‘zone’ or ‘alpha’ states during exercise
Improving relaxation and calmness at competitions
Improving postural stability.
My breath training involved a few aspects:
Day to day diaphragm & nose breathing rhythms aimed at slowing down the breathing rate and reducing the volume of the breath – this represents what I would call ‘base training’ which restores normal or optimal breathing function on a day to day basis, and prepares the body for performance breath training. 30 minutes per day.
Off the water diaphragm strengthening exercises (as most people’s diaphragm muscle is weak and atonic due to lack of use), combined with breath holds (to increase the brain’s tolerance to increased CO2 levels experienced during exertion). 20-30 minutes, 3-5 times per week.
Practice of nose & diaphragm breathing whilst doing my paddle training or cross training – it takes time for the body to adjust to the reduced volume and rate of breathing experience when predominantly nose/diaphragm breathing, so I was fortunate to be able to build my capacity to breathe optimally as my program built in intensity from aerobic base training, to higher intensity race pace training, and finally lactic tolerance and speed training. If you try to nose/diaphragm breathe at really high intensity initially, before your body has time to adapt, it can really hurt, and lead to one feeling badly out of breath, light headed or having a headache. You simply have t build your tolerance to increased CO2 over time.
As my training progressed and increased in intensity, I started to get more comfortable nose and diaphragm breathing at higher intensities, and I felt very relaxed at these intensities – far more than I usually would.
I knew the biggest difficulty in applying performance breathing on race day would be from the start, as we don’t start paddle race at a cruisy pace.
Paddlers take off quickly in order to find their own water (as sitting behind multiple skis results in getting caught in bumpy, ‘dirty’ water that is hard to paddle in), or find the wash of another slightly faster paddler to sit on.
As such it’s very challenging from a breathing perspective – many paddlers feel out of breath, and have to back off after the initial start until they feel comfortable in their breathing – and that has traditionally always included me.
Therefore I knew that getting used to nose & diaphragm breathing at high intensities was necessary, but would also have to be my main emphasis for the start of the race.
In addition, if necessary, I could use the mouth occasionally as long as my inhalation was initiated by the diaphragm first, and then the chest, rather than huffing and puffing with the chest only, which is effectively hyperventilating, and is extremely inefficient from a cardiovascular perspective.
Even if you use your mouth instead of the nose, learning how to diaphragm breathe properly will still be more efficient than huffing and puffing with the chest and shoulders only, as diaphragm breathing will slow breathing down.
But learning how to nose breathe for as long as you can, as well as diaphragm breathing, is by far the most efficient method.
Ultimately, the less you mouth breathe initially, or the more you nose breathe, the better you set yourself for efficient breathing as the pace settles 20-30 minutes into the race.
Therefore, on race day, after the start, my main focus and energy expenditure was on breathing efficiently rather than trying too hard. Fortunately in a 50+ km race, you can’t start too hard anyway if you want to get to the last half of the race, or the end in a reasonable state.
Via this primary focus on nose & diaphragm breathing initially, which was quite a challenge, I found that I was able to maintain a consistent pace, rather than having to back off for a while, and then after 20-30 minutes of being at my limit of comfort (with the occasional mouth breath) I started to get more comfortable with my breathing and it became a nice, relaxed but energetic rhythm.
As a result, I felt very good internally. I felt relaxed, with an upright posture, and could maintain a solid pace quite comfortably. It also kept me focused on the task at hand, rather than my mind wandering.
At around the 1.5 hour mark, or just under half way (the race took me 3 hours 40 minutes), I felt fantastic, so whilst maintaining my nose/diaphragm breathing rhythm, I was able to accelerate for the rest of the race, and from here I began to overtake a number of paddlers who couldn’t sustain the pace they set out at.
This was unusual or a surprise for me, as I had previously always been more of a sprinter who goes out fast at the start, and struggles to maintain speed, rather than an endurance paddler who builds as they go.
In fact, it was a revelation to do this, as I’d never done that before.
It also helped me regulate my hydration really well, as my mouth was closed so it wasn’t drying out regularly. This is super important for this race, as maintain hydration and electrolyte levels is one of the main challenges in this race, and one of the main reasons that many paddlers fail to finish well, or at all.
As a result of settling into this breathing rhythm and being able to accelerate for the 2nd half (or two thirds) of the race, I performed better than I expected, and finished in the top 10 overall for the race – at the age of 45.
I was very happy with the result, but I was even more elated at being able to master my breathing at a high level, and to surprise myself so much in doing so – not only how relaxed and in control I felt, but also the increased cardiovascular capacity I felt I had found. It’s very nice to be pleasantly surprised sometimes in life. I felt like I had found a serious competitive edge to support my paddling.
The same pattern and result occurred two years later, when I did the race again.
If you’d like to explore gaining a natural competitive edge in sport, or exercise, that is easy to learn, then contact me via this website to book and appointment, or enrol in my online course, ‘Breathing Dynamics for Sporting Performance’. It is super thorough and you get some one on one time with me as a part of the course cost.
Also, see the links for other articles and research on breathing for sporting performance: