How Athletes Use Breathing Techniques To Perform Better Physically

We spoke to exercise physiologist and physiotherapist James Fletcher about how breath training can improve your overall health and performance, long-term.

While he’s currently working with Olympic swimmer Cameron McEvoy in the lead up to the 2018 Commonwealth games, James Fletcher spends most of his time applying his breathing techniques to the everyday Aussie, developing a breath training program that can increase exercise performance, reduce anxiety and even help people quit smoking.

Recently working with three ex-smokers who quit with Nicorette, training them to participate in a Human Aquarium – showcasing the amazing power of the breath, Fletcher sat down with GQ to explain how you can incorporate a complete workout for the lungs.

GQ: What is the science behind the power of the breath when it comes to exercise?

Fletcher: Simply, we are strength training the breathing muscles making them more fatigue resistant. Yes, the breathing muscles become tired and this affects performance levels, anxiety and stress. By making the breathing muscles stronger, shortness of breath levels reduce allowing all individuals to exercise at a greater intensity.

Secondly, by delaying the fatigue of the breathing muscles we allow more blood to be delivered to the exercising muscles and exercise becomes easier. Articles by a group of researchers from Harms et al. in 1997 measured the blood flow to the legs during cycling exercise. When the breathing muscles became fatigued, blood delivery to the legs reduced because the breathing muscles needed it and as a result performance levels dropped.

A excellent article which summarises 21 articles on strength training the breathing muscles is by (HajGhanbari, 2013 – Effects of Respiratory Muscle training on performance in athletes).

How are elite athletes incorporating your learnings?

What we find in practice is all athletes are different, and all sports have different respiratory requirements and the best way to explain is to use case examples from a variety of sports.

We helped Cameron McEvoy (Australian swim Team – Freestyle) improve his inspiratory flow rate, so he can take a faster breath and reduce the time he has his head turned during his race. We also strengthened his inspiratory muscles to delay fatigue of the breathing muscles, in particular for swimmers their work of breathing is higher than land based athletes.

We also recently worked with Ryan Hipwood (WSL Big Wave surfer) before the Peahi big wave event improving the volumes of air he can take in before being wiped out by a 40+ft wave. Also we improved his ability to control anxiety with Fletcher techniques, sometimes waiting 20 minutes in the channel waiting for a life or death situation and the ride of his life.

A number of Brisbane Broncos (NRL Team) players were also suffering from excessive levels of shortness of breath when running off the bench into a game situation. They had not warmed up their inspiratory muscles, and this has large effect on the levels of shortness of breath an athlete feels. There is great evidence on using Fletcher techniques warm ups to improve performance at both elite and non-elite levels.

How would the average male incorporate this into their training? 

Non-elite athletes and “weekend warriors” can benefit immensely, some would say even more than elite level athletes from these techniques.

Often, for the non-elite athlete it is physiological factors that hinder performance such as shortness of breath, high levels of exertion, and fatigue. The training we provide takes less than 5mins/day and you see results within 2 weeks.

The general prescription is 30 breaths in the morning, and 30 at night utilising one of the Fletcher techniques methods such as Flow, Power or Volume training. We tell most of our clients to do their training while they are waiting for the kettle to boil in the morning, and before their shower at night, its easy to fit in and the results are very predictable.

What are the other benefits?

The diaphragm is the lid on core stability, if your diaphragm is weak then you will loose that intra-abdominal pressure which can contribute to core stability and balance. Working with Cirque Du Soleil and the high-wire troop whom balance on a wire 8m in the air, if their balance and control are not good there is going to be trouble.

For people with asthma, Fletcher techniques allows you to control the condition much better without the assistance of medicines. By strength training the inspiratory muscles, asthma patients experience lower levels of shortness of breath and research shows much less reliever medication is needed. Asthma patients will focus on the Flow training method, which improves symptom control and improves performance.

As mentioned, the Techniques were developed in the clinic with patients with respiratory disease and patients after surgery. There is clear clinical evidence (Gosselink et al, 2011) for respiratory patients to improve their quality of life and reduce their shortness of breath levels, which can be crippling.

Stress and anxiety can overcome some patients when they are put in certain situations. By strength training the breath, we give patients great control over their physiology, which has an instant impact on these conditions. Think of the paper bag method, used as a control for over breathing. You don’t need the bag if you have a well trained respiratory system which takes less than 5mins/day to train.

Quitting smoking, my mother has been a smoker for many years and I am very passionate about improving the health outcomes for any smoker looking to quit. By changing the way we look at the quitting process, turn the negative experience into a positive one and allow patients to achieve something amazing within 4 weeks of quitting instead of weight gain, irritability, stress and cravings.

By Nikolina Skoric, GQ Australia