Breathwork and Mindfulness For Performance Athletes

 Breathwork and Mindfulness For Performance Athletes

Back in 2016, before an intense training at my local gym, I had a momentous conversation with my good friend Angelo, a BJJ instructor in Milan, Italy: 

Hey Ale! We need a psychologist in this gym!” Angelo told me, while other people were listening. – “Ha ha! I don’t think so guys, you look pretty sane to me!”, I replied. – “No, seriously! We really need a psychologist to learn about mind tricks that maximize performance!” insisted Angelo.

The week after, I had another talk with Angelo about the same topic: this time we were joined by Omar (trainer and director of one of the most renown professional martial arts academies in Milan), who also liked the idea of merging psychology with gym training: this second exchange led to the creation of my first psychosomatic/breathwork workshop.

Three years later, I am still amazed at how this conversation led me to specialize in the world of “breathwork”. At the time, I didn’t even know where to start! All I had were some tools acquired via my university thesis on mindfulness, and skills I gained through the Wim Hof Method.

Coincidentally, at the time I was following the YogaforBJJ program to alleviate lower back issues caused by BJJ sparring: I realized that I could also integrate their specialized YogaforBJJ Breathing Program in my workshop.

The YogaforBJJ breathing program is an amazing and valuable resource for athletes and therefore it was the place where I started my research in this field. At the time I watched most of the breathing techniques videos taught by Artur Paulins (kapalbhati, bhastrika, etc.) as well as all of Sebastian’s videos, such as his “Box Breathing”.

A year later, I had the opportunity to meet Artur Paulins in person during our first YogaforBJJ Instructor training. During his workshop, there was one thing he said that was a true mind opener for me: “We should consider the breath as the remote control of the entire physiology”. This is so true: it is common in our culture to hear sentences such as “relax, take a big breath!", or "we have two important breaths in our life, the first one and the last one" and also "you can live without eating for one month, drinking for one week but you cannot live without breathing for more than one minute!" My favorite? “A life shouldn’t be measured by the number of years but rather by the number of breaths”.

The English word “breathe” is translated in French as respirer”, “respiração” in portughese, in Italian “respirare” or in Spanish “respirar”: all these European words derive from the latin word “spīrō”, which is also the etymological basis for words such as aspire, inspire, perspire, transpire and spirit. 

It is in fact through breathing that we can influence our "spirit" by managing our own psychophysiology: breathing is a powerful tool, capable of handling our physiology in limitless situations.

However, most people do not know how to maximize the potential benefits of breathing. Several questions therefore must be answered: What is the difference between functional and dysfunctional breathing?  How can we assess it on our own? Is our breath conditioned by our state of mind? And moreover, is it possible to control the mind through the breath?

Panic attacks are an example of a cause of dysfunctional breathing. Try to recall the last time you saw someone experiencing a panic attack: the agitation increases and an intense fear rises, together with catastrophic mental scenarios. In extreme cases, some people could experience the feeling of going mad, with a fear of losing control. The physical symptoms of a panic attack are a feeling of breathlessness and suffocation, pupil dilation, accelerated heartbeat and breathing (localized in the upper part of the chest). 

Anxiety is another example of a cause of dysfunctional breathing. Let's picture ourselves before a competition: I am getting ready to fight, I feel my heart beating faster, my sweat is cold, I have a knot in my stomach, I am tormented by doubts about my own preparation. As I wait for my sparring turn, I observe the context around me wondering: “Perhaps my opponent is very strong physically or technically? Wow! This guy looks tough! And that one is well known about his way to keep you under pressure!” Etc. 

But what happens to our metabolism during stressful situations or while we are anxious? When we are faced by threats (including modern age “threats”, such as being late for work, meeting deadlines, getting ready for a competition), our metabolism will trigger and increase many physiological parameters in order to overcome the challenges that are waiting for us. 

For example, our heartbeat and respiratory rate will accelerate and provide more energy and oxygen to our tissues, muscles and other organs thanks to the constriction of our blood vessels. The digestive system will slow-down, saliva won’t be secreted and our body will be more prone to sweat. Our pupils will dilate in order to elaborate more information that may help us to find out which one of these is more relevant and useful to the situation we are facing. This activation has a name, and it is commonly defined as the sympathetic nervous system activation. It is also known as “fight or flight response”. It is basically our psychophysiological or autonomic nervous system accelerator. This activation helps us to face our everyday life challenges. In a competition, this kind of stress will help us to get ready to face our own challenge. Beneficial stress is called “eustress”, while detrimental stress is called “distress”. 

But what about the mind? In everyday life we may notice our mind wandering. This concept has been noticed by ancient asians scholars and conceptualized as “Monkey Mind”. In light with this concept, a main characteristic of our mind activity is to jump from one thought to another like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. Many athletes lose their attention not because of outer stimuli but also by inner stimuli that may be thought parasites (being pessimistic on our own capacities, full of doubts, demotivated) and having a restless mind.

In extreme conditions, this activation would nurture our minds of chaotic scenarios: thoughts and negative emotions  will in turn increase our metabolism and strengthen the dynamic of our mental activity. Even if for some of us it is not clear, we usually tend to spontaneously believe in our thoughts. We compulsively react to our thoughts and emotions and take them for granted. At this point, two issues could occur: either we have a strong panic attack with the possibility to faint or we may react. You may ask, “Yes? But how can I react?”

In this case, our metabolism is too fast, and in this situation we couldn't do much apart from slowing down our respiratory rate in order to activate a parasympathetic response (or autonomic nervous system break) and work mindfully for a better inner state. 

Luckily, our autonomic nervous system is not constantly activated. We can compare our metabolism to a car provided with two car pedals: an accelerator and a brake pedal. In front of adversities, as we have seen, our metabolism will accelerate, and on the other hand, after eating or while asleep, our metabolism will decrease its activity which is defined as the parasympathetic system also called “rest or digest” or "feed and breed". This part of the autonomic nervous system can also be influenced at will only through your own breath.

Here is an amazing thing about the breath: you cannot bring your attention to your breath and at the same time to your thoughts. Turning your awareness to your breath will automatically withdraw your attention from your thoughts and “tame the Monkey Mind”. You will also create a space between one thought and the other. It takes oxygen and glucose to your brain in order to produce a thought (basically oxygen and sugar). You will automatically lessen your metabolic consumption. But it doesn’t end here…

Reducing the rate of our respiratory system, we will also influence our own metabolism and alleviate all this psychophysiological dynamic. Our mind is still and our body too. Both of them (inherently) unified and influenced by the quality of our breath. “One ring to rule them all!” would say our super friend Tolkien!

Going back to our competition context... We are still and ready to face our competition, without being influenced by inner-stimuli or external stimuli. I won’t compare myself to others; I won’t be pulled by my inner scenarios and I will conserve my energy as much as possible keep my energies for me as much as I can.

However, nowadays, life is stressful enough to excessively activate a chronic sympathetic response without necessarily having a panic attack. This could produce for example two very common disorders: panic attack or anxiety. While a panic attack is more spontaneous and immediate, anxiety is based on long term stress accrual. Moreover both are characterized by an intense fear. Being stressed or anxious most of the time activates our metabolism in a constant “fight or flight” mode. Apart from the fact that our mind will naturally wander from thought to thought endlessly, our breath tends to be excessive and, accordingly, beyond our metabolic requirement (even in a relaxed situation). Another factor could be also correlated to our weight. If I'm overweight, it will take a lot of energy to move all my weight, therefore, my breath will be dysfunctional. 

A dysfunctional breathing is considered as follows: it is irregular, localized at the upper part of the chest (that may lead to chest pain), from the mouth (dry mouth, sore throat), constant air hunger, frequent sighing and poor core muscle condition (low intra-abdominal pressure and poor stability of the spine).

Two things to keep in mind at this point are the following: 

  • The way you breathe in everyday life will influence the way you breathe at night (mouth breathers tend to snore or have sleep apnea with the risk of waking up tired and with a dry mouth). 

  • The way how you breathe in the everyday life will influence the way you breathe during your training: poor breathing conditions, hyperventilation and shallow breathing, gazing-out too soon, weak stabilization of the spine (an average of 60% of BJJ practitioners inside academies suffer of low back pain), poor stamina, quick lactic acid insurgence and poor concentration. 

At this point what is a functional breathing?

Functional breathing in the everyday life has to follow the LSD rule: 

  • “Light”, not forced; 

  • “Slow”, with a reduced respiratory rate of about 12 breaths/min (the lesser the better); 

  • “Deep”, involving the diaphragm under the lower part of our ribs. 

In functional breathing, inhalations and exhalations are long and followed by a natural pause. The breath is mainly diaphragmatic and only through the nose. Why? 

If we start considering the nostrils, air is filtered, warmed at the body temperature, and humidified. If we go deeper in the nasal cavity (put your tongue from your teeth back to your palate as far as you can), nose breathing will harness a hormone called Nitric Oxide, well known for its antibacterial and vasodilation properties (open blood vessels). These will help the diffusion of oxygen throughout the lungs involving also the dead space. Dead space is defined as the volume of ventilated air that does not participate in gas exchange (it can reach up to 30% of wasted ventilation). Moreover, nose breathing involves the diaphragm activation, promoting the oxygen uptake into the tissues. In a training context, nose breathing will delay the onset of lactic acid and fatigue, enhancing also a better recovery process. If the breath is through the mouth, air will be dry and will mainly activate a fight or flight response,  even if the oral cavity is wider compared to our nostril. In essence, the nose is for breathing and the mouth for eating!

It is possible to assess your breath in the following ways:

  • Counting the number of breaths I take in one minute (the lesser the better if air hunger is tolerable).

  • Measuring my Blood Oxygen Level Test (BOLT): doing a normal inhalation and a normal exhalation, tipping my nose and holding my breath until I feel my belly pulsating or the first desire to breathe. A normal BOLT is generally around 25 seconds. This exercise will assess how my body reacts to the CO2 build up. The less my body reacts to CO2 buildup, the more I will be capable of resisting high CO2 levels in my body and the better I will perform.

In conclusion, sport performance is mainly influenced by the way we breathe in our everyday life. Breathing from the nose during a high intensity sport activity is recommended only if our BOLT score is higher than 25 seconds. As we have mentioned before, the nostrils are smaller than our oral cavity and some people could struggle with this new kind of breathing practice. And even if it is tough, breathing from the nose has a lot of benefits (filtered and warmed up air, stimulation of a vasodilator called Nitric Oxide) and one of them is the oxygen uptake that increases our recovery after a sparring at a slow paced rhythm. Remember that you’re a CO2 producer! Meaning that you’re releasing a lot of gas while you’re training and this gas needs to find a way out! This is exactly what you exhale while you’re puffing out during or after sparring and giving that sensation of air hunger. Keeping your mouth shut, your body will learn how to handle high CO2 levels and fading away the sensation of air hunger.

If you’re struggling too much, remember that it takes time to decondition yourself from old habits. Training half of your lesson with the mouth taped could be a good beginning. But what about emotions? Well… As would say Dr Jason Shields: “Are you acting and achieving because of your emotions or with your emotion?”.

Click here to head to the Yoga For BJJ Website Breathing Program

Alessandro Romagnoli 


YogaforBJJ instructor

BJJ Purple Belt (Team Juan Neves) 

Breathing Expert: Oxygen Advantage Master, Buteyko Instructor & Wim Hof trainee

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