What’s a ‘Breathing Workout,’ and Why Do You Need It?

Soldier screams while attempting to squat more than 400 pounds.
A soldier screams as he attempts to lift more than 400 pounds during the squat competition at Salie Gym, Forward Operating Base Warhorse, outside of Baqubah, Iraq, Aug. 18, 2007. (Spc. Ryan Stroud, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division)

Control of breathing for physical training performance, overall workout recovery and stress mitigation is uniquely in our control. We have the ability to control our heart rate and general physical state by breathing in a systematic way. A deep, relaxing breath can help us unwind and engage our parasympathetic nervous system and take our recovery to where it is needed in the central nervous system.

Breathing for Performance

Whether you are performing a speech in front of a large group of spectators, running a marathon or lifting weights, you can improve your performance be learning breath techniques for those activities. By reducing shallow breathing and instead focusing on slower, deeper and steady inhales and exhales, you can reduce anxiety, fear and be in a better state to recover fully from stressful work as well as intense physical activity.

Breathing can help you relax and reengage the thinking part of the brain so you can focus on the immediate issue at hand. Learning to breathe for running also can make you faster with a lower heart rate, which can make you better at any cardiovascular activity.

Breathing Techniques That Work

For performance breathing, you should inhale and exhale through your nose. You may need to inhale through the nose but exhale out the mouth to speed the process as you first get started.

A recommended book that thoroughly explains the processes is Patrick McKeown's "Oxygen Advantage" that describes this method of breathing that helps with recovery and athletic performance. Another good book is Dr. Belisa Vranich's "Breathe," which perfectly teaches a breathing method to make breathing stronger and help mitigate stress.

Many Ways to Breathe (Here Are a Few)

There are many ways to breathe deeply, but I recommend starting out with simple box breathing or 2:1 breathing.

  • Box breathing is: inhale four seconds, hold four seconds, exhale four seconds, hold four seconds.
  • If you prefer something a little less rigid, try the 2:1 ratio method. Simply inhale 3-4 seconds in your nose and exhale through your mouth 6-8 seconds. Try exhaling through the nose if you prefer, but mouth exhaling is fine, too.

Running and Swimming Breathing

The less you can breathe through the mouth (inhale) the better. Inhaling through the nose and out the mouth has been a technique I have used for decades when doing all activities. When swimming, it is difficult to breathe through the nose, especially when wearing a mask like we do in SEAL/diving training.

During rest intervals, I will lift my mask off my face and get as many nose inhales as possible. This helps to reduce your heart rate quickly during interval training (running or swimming, etc.).

Breathing for Recovery

Have fun with it by checking your heart rate regularly during exercise. Wear a monitor and watch your heart rate increase and decrease by adjusting your breathing rhythm and cadences. Check your resting heart rate immediately upon waking before you get up out of bed to get a baseline. Take a few minutes and breathe deeply, using the 2:1 method (or others) to see whether you can adjust it even more.

Breathing is a powerful tool and is literally done everywhere at all times. So get good at it. Improve it by working it and monitoring progress.

For me, the best recovery tool is sleeping. Using a relaxing breathing method for a few minutes before sleep will help you calm down and fall asleep faster.


Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for fitness and basic training tips, or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues