One of the most common mistakes people make but fail to notice is shallow breathing. Most people who develop shallow breathing patterns do it during the day and during exercise.
You can have the best shoes with the best running insoles and the best bike, and shallow breathing will still hold you back. As an athlete, you must be mindful of how shallow breathing makes you slow.
Note – If you’re ever having trouble or difficulty breathing, obviously you need to see a medical professional. Don’t wait, please.
Shallow Breathing Elevates Your Heart Rate
You probably think that breathing is a natural thing that your body controls and that you don’t need to be mindful of. That is true and also false. It’s extremely easy to fall into a shallow breathing trap while you’re exercising and get a sub-optimal result. Or put another way, what if you could get a 5-10% improvement simply by altering your breathing method? Now we’re talking.
Shallow breathing is when you begin to exhale before filling your lungs completely with air and inhale before they are completely empty (hyperventilating). You rob your body of the oxygen needed to go longer and faster.
Shallow Breathing Results in Rapid Breathing
Endurance sports consist of two parts – lung capacity and muscle capacity. Both need to be maximized in order to have the best performance. If you don’t have enough oxygen, then your heart rate will rise quickly and the lactic acid in your muscles can’t be removed. In short, you’ll tire quickly.
Shallow breathing affects so many things such as high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, chest pain, etc.
The Link to High Blood Pressure
While shallow breathing might seem harmless by itself, its impact on the body can be quite significant, especially when it comes to high blood pressure. Here’s how:
- Reduced Oxygenation: Shallow breathing limits the amount of oxygen entering your body with each breath. Oxygen is crucial for the health of your cells, tissues, and organs. When your cells are deprived of oxygen, the body’s natural response is to increase blood pressure to ensure that enough oxygen-rich blood reaches all parts of the body.
- Stress Response: Shallow breathing triggers the release of stress hormones. These hormones cause blood vessels to constrict and narrow, leading to an increase in blood pressure. Additionally, chronic stress can lead to inflammation and damage to blood vessel walls, contributing to long-term hypertension.
- Autonomic Nervous System Imbalance: Shallow breathing disrupts the balance between the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest). An imbalance in the sympathetic system can lead to high blood pressure.
So are you a victim of shallow breathing? Let’s look at some of the signs and then discuss various solutions.
Table of Contents
Reasons for Shallow Breathing
Why do people develop shallow breathing? There have been studies on this very subject and the physiological effects of adopting slow breathing in adults.
Slumping Forward / Poor Posture
When you slump your shoulders forward while running or round your back excessively while cycling, you are collapsing the room your lungs have to expand and limiting their maximum capacity. We want to feed oxygen to our bloodstream to keep our heart rate low. So don’t sabotage your efforts by crimping the oxygen hose.
Rapid breathing From Not Warming Up
This might be less obvious to athletes, but it can present itself during hard workouts when you don’t warm up enough. When your body goes from being cold straight into a huge effort, your lungs fall into a rapid breathing (shallow breathing) cycle.
If you start off your spring training regimen too strong without participating in endurance sports over the winter, you could develop a shallow breathing problem. Many people (myself included) think we can pick up where we left off after last summer’s block of hard training. Not a good idea.
Initially, rapid breathing is warranted due to the output but even after you slow down, your breathing stays a bit labored for the rest of the workout. You’ve shocked your body and it’s difficult to correct it quickly.
Shallow breathing often involves using the chest muscles more than the diaphragm to inhale and exhale. Diaphragmatic breathing (described later) involves engaging your diaphragm muscle to take deep, full breaths that reach the bottom of your lungs.
Diaphragmatic breathing can greatly improve your nervous system.
Shallow breathing can lead to (and be the cause of) tension in the neck, shoulders, and chest muscles.
Signs of Shallow Breathing
Shallow breathing is often associated with a faster rate of breathing than normal. Anxiety will often cause shallow breathing, which may be why your body will naturally try to breathe deeply in order to relax.
When you breathe shallowly, your body doesn’t receive enough oxygen, which can lead to fatigue, cramping, and other issues.
Feeling out of breath
People who are experiencing shallow breathing may feel like they are running out of breath or that they can’t catch their breath.
If you seem to be out of breath during a standard run or even during a build-up to one of the best marathons of your life, you could be shallow breathing.
Feeling anxious or stressed
Shallow breathing can be a symptom of anxiety or stress and may exacerbate feelings of anxiety or stress. If you’re tired, your body will not be relaxed and will fall into a pattern of shallow breathing.
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Shallow breathing can lead to a decrease in oxygen levels in the body, which can cause dizziness or lightheadedness.
Solutions To Shallow Breathing
Certain conditions make shallow breathing more prevalent. Heat and humidity are challenging environments that will force many people to develop a more shallow breathing pattern.
The best thing you can do is to warm up. Shallow breathing can result from the shock you put on your body. Imagine if you haven’t done a leg workout in a while and you do heavy squats. Your legs will kind of be jumpy and irritated due to the shock, right? At least mine behave that way. Well, your lungs are the same. If you shock them too quickly, they will not be happy with you.
Warm Up First
A proper warmup generally prevents the body’s “reactionary” method of shallow breathing. It will allow your body to operate normally for the rest of the workout. Check out this mile pacing chart and purposely start lower than you’re capable of.
Get your heart rate high for 30 seconds, then rest for 2-3 minutes, then get it high for 30 seconds again. This prepares your body, without really punishing it. You just want your heart and lungs to be warmed up, without getting tired.
Go Hard the Day Before
This will be discussed in depth in another article about preparing for a race. You need to “ready yourself” for a race by “preparing” your body to handle the shock to it.
I would do this exact preparation the day before every bike race. We would start with 100% effort from the start, and I needed to be prepared for the pain that was to come.
Warm up for 20 minutes before you do this.
On a bike, get into a gear that will allow you to spin at about 105-110 RPMs in the hardest gear you can manage for 3 minutes. Your heart will go through the roof, but keep it up for 3 minutes at this cadence. Then rest for 3 minutes at a super easy cadence. Then do it again for another 3 minutes. Then cool down for 10 minutes easy.
That’s your day before preparation.
By punishing your body like this, you’ll be putting lactic acid buffers into your bloodstream which will remain there for over 24 hours. So tomorrow you can go super hard from the start and it simply doesn’t feel as hard. And this helps prevent you from shallow breathing during this workout.
While not exercising
When you’re not working out, you can further condition your body to breathe efficiently.
Tip #1: Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing
(This can be done while either exercising or resting.)
The diaphragm is a muscle located at the base of your lungs, and it’s responsible for most of your breathing. When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts and moves downward, allowing your lungs to expand and fill with air. When you breathe out, your diaphragm relaxes and moves back up, pushing the air out of your lungs.
Many people don’t use their diaphragm when they breathe, instead relying on their chest muscles to do the work. This type of breathing is shallow and inefficient, and it can lead to fatigue and decreased endurance.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, lie on your back with your knees bent and your hands resting on your stomach. Breathe in slowly through your nose, feeling your stomach rise as your diaphragm contracts. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth, feeling your stomach fall as your diaphragm relaxes.
Focus on filling your lungs entirely with each breath, and try to maintain a steady rhythm as you inhale and exhale. Repeat this exercise for a few minutes every day, and soon diaphragmatic breathing will become second nature.
Once you’ve mastered diaphragmatic breathing while lying down, try incorporating it into your endurance racing routine. Practice breathing deeply during your warm-up, and continue to focus on your breath throughout your race. You may find it helpful to count your breaths or to synchronize your breath with your steps or pedal strokes. With practice, diaphragmatic breathing will become second nature, allowing you to run or cycle long distances with greater ease.
Tip #2: Control Your Breathing Rate
When you’re in the middle of a race, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and start breathing too quickly. But rapid, shallow breathing can lead to hyperventilation, which can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and even unconsciousness.
To avoid hyperventilation, it’s important to control your breathing rate. One effective way to do this is to use a breathing cadence. A breathing cadence is a set pattern of inhales and exhales that you repeat throughout the race.
For example, you might inhale for three steps, hold your breath for two steps, and then exhale for three steps. This breathing pattern will help you maintain a steady breathing rate, which will increase your endurance and prevent hyperventilation.
Taking a cold plunge regularly forces you to regulate your breathing in order to endure the extreme cold.
I personally use this technique following a hard effort when I need to bring my heart rate down. It works great.
Tip #3: Focus on Exhaling Fully
When you’re running or cycling, it’s easy to focus on breathing in and forget about breathing out. But fully exhaling is just as important as inhaling, if not more so.
When you exhale, you’re getting rid of carbon dioxide, which is a waste product of metabolism. If you don’t exhale fully, carbon dioxide will build up in your body, which can cause muscle fatigue, dizziness, and other symptoms of respiratory acidosis.
Deep breathing has also shown to lower blood pressure and reduce heart rate. Both things valued by athletes.
To fully exhale, focus on breathing out slowly and completely. Imagine that you’re trying to blow up a balloon as big as possible, then release all the air slowly and completely. This will help you get rid of all the carbon dioxide in your lungs and prevent respiratory acidosis.
I personally find this really challenging when I’m having difficulty breathing (due to hard efforts). However, I try to focus on it when I’m not at my limit.
Tip #4: Incorporate Breath Holding Drills
Another useful breathing technique is breath-holding. Breath-holding drills involve taking deep breaths and holding it for a few seconds before exhaling. This technique can help improve your lung capacity, allowing you to take in more oxygen with each breath.
To practice breath-holding, start by taking a deep breath and holding it for five seconds. Then exhale slowly through your mouth, taking care not to release all of the air at once. Hold your breath again for five seconds, and repeat the cycle several times. As you become more comfortable with the technique, try increasing the length of time you hold each of your deep breaths.
Incorporate breath-holding drills into your endurance racing routine by practicing them during your warm-up. You can also use them during your race to help regulate your breathing and conserve energy. Try holding your breath for a few seconds during uphill climbs, for example, to help you power through the difficult terrain.
I also use this for a yoga-type meditation when I need to lower my heart rate as much as possible.
Tip #5: Practice Box Breathing
Box breathing is another useful technique for endurance racing that can help you regulate your breath and maintain focus. This technique involves taking slow, deep breaths in four counts, holding the breath for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding your breath again for four counts.
To practice box breathing, find a quiet, comfortable space where you can sit or lie down. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in, counting to four as you inhale. Hold your breath for four counts, then exhale slowly for four counts. Hold your breath again for four counts, and repeat the cycle several times.
Box breathing can be particularly helpful during long races or training sessions when you need to maintain focus and control your breath. Incorporate this technique into your pre-race routine or use it during difficult stretches of your race to help you stay centered and in control.
Shallow breathing can make you slow, but by practicing diaphragmatic breathing (which can lower blood pressure), controlling your breathing rate, and focusing on exhaling fully, you can increase your endurance and improve your performance. Remember, the key to combatting shallow breathing is to make it a habit. Practice these tips every day, and soon they’ll become second nature.
Breathing drills are a critical component of endurance racing, helping you regulate your breath, conserve energy, and perform at your best. When you improve your breathing, you can improve your lung capacity, reduce fatigue, and power through even the most challenging races.
Mastering breathing drills takes time and practice. It’s essential to be patient with yourself as you work to develop these skills and incorporate them into your race routine. If any terms or phrases aren’t clear in this article, check out our glossary of triathlon terms for more clarity.
If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to contact us.