Breathing: It’s as natural as, well, breathing…right? Not necessarily, says Nike’s official breathwork coach Stuart Sandeman. “The way we are thinking and feeling will affect our breathing—but also our breathing will affect the way we’re thinking and feeling,” he says. “So steadying and balancing our breaths basically becomes an on-and-off switch for our nervous system.” One place especially where have a few tools to help you manage your inhales and exhales can come in handy is while training, which is where pre-workout breathing exercises can be beneficial to prime your body to better performance.
During aerobic exercise like steady state cardio, your body gets energy from the oxygen you breathe, and during anaerobic workouts (think: HIIT and even strength training at times), it pulls power out of the glucose stores made from the food you eat. “So breathing is really about energy demands,” Sandeman explains. “Our cells need more energy if we’re going to do something like go for a run. In essence, when we breathe more fully, we create more energy.”
Put another way, when you master your breathing, you’ll reach new levels of physical achievement—and enjoyment.
Sandeman’s coaching in breathing techniques has unlocked unprecedented performance for Great Britain’s Olympic rowing team, Olympic-level swimmers, and UFC fighters. You may also have heard his (very soothing) voice on the BBC’s Decompression Session series, or seen his Sunday Times bestselling book Breathe In, Breathe Out.
3 pre-workout breathing exercises to up your performance
To get motivated when your energy levels are low: belly, chest, exhale
How to: Breathe through your nose and into your belly on a count of 1. Think of allowing your diaphragm to expand. Breathe through your nose and into your chest on a count of 1. Think of letting the chest expand up and out. Exhale through your mouth on a count of 1. Repeat as desired, up to 60 seconds. Optional: End by shaking your body out.
Why it works: “People get a bit scared by the word ‘stress’ because they think stress is the thing we must avoid at all costs,” says Sandeman. “But positive stress motivates us and gets us ready for action.”
To calm your nerves before a big race or competition: box breathing
How to: Breathe in through the nose for 4 counts. Hold for 4 counts. Breathe out through the nose for 4 counts. Hold your breath for 4 counts. You should notice a difference after just one cycle. Ideally, repeat for four minutes.
Why it works: “Box breathing will still your mind and body to get you ready and into flow state,” says Sandeman. “Navy SEALs use box breathing before going into conflict because they don’t want to go into a difficult combat circumstance feeling either super relaxed or really tense.”
To quiet the mental chatter so you can focus on working out: hands-free alternate nostril breathing
How to: Close your eyes. Breathe in, directing the air through just your left nostril. Breathe out, directing the air through just your right nostril. Breathe in, directing the air through just your right nostril. Breathe out, directing the air through just your left nostril. Repeat as desired, until you feel ready to open your eyes and come back into the space.
Why it works: “Alternate nostril breathing, where you manually close off one nostril at a time, is quite common in yoga,” says Sandeman. “But this way I like to do it with clients is super fun—and challenging enough that it’ll help you find your laser focus.”
Before your next workout, try dialing up—or down—your energy levels as needed with one of Sandeman’s favorite pre-workout breathing exercises. But you don’t have to save them just for when you’re training. Use these breathwork techniques anytime you could use a little recharge throughout your day.