Just breathe – maximising breath for performing 

I am fascinated by free divers. Basically, this is a form of underwater diving that relies on breath holding to hit incredible depths rather than rely on scuba gear and the like. It often entails simply a swimming outfit and a set of fins. The current record for free diving is 214 metres (702 feet) set by Herbert Nitsch, who is referred to as the ‘deepest man on earth’. He is a ‘no limits’ diver who uses heavy weights to assist his dissent. Then there is another free diver called Budimir Šobat who, in March 2021, broke the record for the longest someone has held their breath with a staggering time of 24 minutes 37.36 seconds. To give you some context, most regular people struggle to hold their breath for more than 2 minutes. I am fascinated by these free divers because they use, and regulate, something we take for granted on a regular basis, our breathing, to accomplish incredible physical feats. As James Nestor points out in his book ‘Breath’, for free divers, ‘breathing wasn’t an unconscious act; it wasn’t something they just did. It was a force, a medicine, and a mechanism through which they could gain an almost superhuman power.’ The question then, is how might we regulate our breathing in a conscious manner to improve our performance in work and sport. 

Of course, the manner in which free divers develop this incredible breathing skill occurs through practice. For example, as Prof. Frances Ashcroft details, free divers hyperventilate before attempting such record breaking breath holding. Basically, hyperventilating is an intentionally induced rapid form of breathing that blows off carbon dioxide from the body. Free divers teach us therefore that regulating our breath can be a powerful, trained, aid to maximising our performance. For many athletes and performers though, the focus is not on hyperventilating but using one’s breath to help manage our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Unfortunately many athletes in high pressure situations either hold their breath during the execution of a skill, or breathe too rapidly and shallowly from the upper chest. This of course brings in tension and distress both physically and mentally. If our breathing becomes irregular it compounds any anxiety, which in turn causes our attention to turn inwards. In such moments we are less centred and mindful on the task we are trying to complete – essentially we are distracted. As the golfer Bryson DeChambeau suggests, ‘Breathing is a monster part of resting….You can breathe in a stressful way. Or you can breathe in a relaxed state’. We know then that breath training is utilised by golfers and free divers alike, and is essential in executing skills. The question for many however is where to begin. 

In working with athletes, I often suggest that practicing breathing strategies for self regulation can be done through a ‘muscle to mind’ or a ‘mind to muscle’ approach. For example, in terms of ‘muscle to mind’ we can use what is called a ‘Complete Breath’ that involves three stages through both inhaling and exhaling. When inhaling, you are lifting through the bottom, middle, and top of the lungs to raise your collarbones and widen the shoulder blades. On exhaling, you are cycling back through the top, middle, and bottom of the lungs to really empty out that last bit of air. A useful tip here for correct form is placing one hand on the abdomen and another on the upper chest. During the Complete Breath, the hand on your abdomen will move in and out with the inhalation and the exhalation, while the hand on the chest remains relatively calm. In terms of ‘mind to muscle’ approaches, breathing can be combined with imagery through the ‘Relaxing Place’ exercise. This involves detailing in your mind’s eye a physical place that evokes feelings of happiness, contentment and security. Imagining a real, or fictional, relaxing place can help create the mood we need to execute an appropriate decision or skill. Combining it with rhythmic breathing (inhaling on four-seconds, exhaling on four-seconds) can really help enhance the emotional impact of such a ‘place’. Overall, we may not all be able to maximise our breath to the level of free divers, but some small, daily, practice can certainly help us to deepen our sense of enjoyment and skill in what we do. 

Worth a read:

Ashcroft, F. (2000). Life at the Extremes – the science of survival, Flamingo Press.

Lande, B. (2007). “Breathing like a soldier: culture incarnate.” Sociological Review 55(1): 95-108.

Nestor, J. (2020). Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. London, Penguin Books.