Optimizing Oxygen for Better Performance!
  Kurt Ellingson 12:00 AM
As I write this, it is exactly 84 days until I leave. On July 22nd, I hop on my bicycle and begin a 2500 km eastward-bound journey from Vancouver, BC to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Each day that passes, I realize the growing need to get serious about training!

Although I am on my bike every single day of my life, and usually do no less than 25 km per day, I know it is necessary to do both distance- and incline- related training. My journey across this large landmass is sure to demand a much greater supply of energy and endurance than does my daily commute through the city; hence, it is time to get my butt in gear (in this case - quite literally!).

It is clear that I must prepare both my body and mind for the physical and mental obstacles or challenges that are sure to arise along the ride. As a yoga teacher (and student!) I have experienced the benefits of breathing, relaxing and increasing body awareness and am finding ways to incorporate these yoga techniques into my training.

In today's blog, I will explain the importance of breath and how learning to breathe deeply can benefit your performance.

Importance of Breathing:

Simply put, in order to convert fuel into energy, muscles require oxygen. When oxygen is used in this way, it is called 'aerobic (with oxygen) metabolism' and it is the ideal process for the body to use during exercise. Any activity that demands a great deal of energy use will require a greater oxygen supply to enable this form of metabolism.

Sometimes, the body is unable to keep up with the demands for oxygen, and this is when 'anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism' occurs. For example, in the first few minutes of exercise, when the body has not yet increased the heart rate or breath rate, the demands of oxygen temporarily exceed the supply. Lactic acid begins to form in the muscle as a byproduct of anaerobic metabolism. Ideally, enough oxygen is soon available, and the acid is removed from the system. However, if you continue to exercise strenuously, or over an extended period of time without rest, lactic acid will continue to accumulate and eventually the muscles will fatigue.

Learning to increase the availability of oxygen through proper breathing, therefore, should be an important aspect in any athlete's training programme!

Breathing Techniques:

Full belly breathing:

Practice this exercise for 5 - 10 minutes every day during training. Do it at a regular time each, such as first thing in the morning, or immediately before bed, to help build it into your regular routine. Read through the instructions a few times before practising, or allow a friend to read them aloud to you as you close your eyes and follow.

Sit on the floor in a comfortable positon that enables you to have a straight and relaxed spine. If you need, sit in a chair, lean against a wall, or even enjoy this breathing exercise lying down (as long as you're not tempted to drift asleep!). Take both hands onto the belly and allow the middle fingers to connect at the center. Close your eyes and begin to notice your breath. Notice where the body feels naturally open and relaxed, and where the breath is moving in the body. Is your breath moving more into the belly or into the chest? How does the inhale compare to the exhale in length and smoothness? With each consequent breath, allow the breath to slow down, and the inhale to become even with the exhale. If it is helpful, breathe in to a count of 4, and breathe out to a count of 4.

With the hands on the belly, begin to deepen the breath. As you inhale, feel the belly expanding as the middle fingers move away from each other. As you exhale, allow the belly to soften back as the fingers come back together. Inhale feeling expansion. Exhale feeling softness. Continue breathing like this for as long as feels comfortable.

If you are not used to deep breathing, you may become dizzy as the body takes in more oxygen. If this occurs, return to regular breathing. As with any new exercise, especially if you have any underlying conditions, please contact your physician to ensure that deep yoga breathing is a safe practice for your body!

Incorporating Breath During Training:

  • Begin each training session with a few minutes of breathing to supply the muscles with an abundance of oxygen
  • When challenged (riding to the top of a hill, sprinting the last few meters of your race, etc), focus on deep belly breathing
  • Incorporate breathing into your pre- and post- session stretching. Breathe in deeply, and as you exhale, allow the body to deepen into the stretch. Be sure to hold each stretch long enough (at least 30 seconds, ideally 1-2 minutes) to allow the muscles to release.
  • Complete each training session with a few minutes of breathing. This will help the body to remove any lactic acid build up that may have occurred during exercise.
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