Breathlessness – a problem and a solution?


Breathing is often misunderstood in sports training, which is odd given it’s something universal to all athletes. Everyone wants to maximise their oxygen uptake, but despite what many people think, funneling larger volumes of air via our mouth is not the way to do it. If you’re feeling breathless or wheezy, either during or after exercise, then you may be experiencing exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB), where your upper airways tighten and restrict air flow. You may be told it’s due to fitness but if you disagree, it’s worth checking if the way you’re breathing is a factor.

Ineffective breathing affects around 1 in 10 of the general population, but is higher amongst athletes and those suffering from asthma or anxiety. The incidence of EIB in athletes ranges from 10-50% depending on the sport and intensity. At the Athens Olympics, 21% of the UK team displayed asthma symptoms. Whilst there can be underlying health issues at play, for the majority the cause is over-breathing. With the mouth open, air reaches the lungs at ambient temperature so if it’s cold it’s a shock to the system. Temperature difference, and the loss of moisture through the mouth, causes a swelling of the upper airways. Your respiratory muscles work harder, tiring them out, and your breathing suffers further.

There are three aspects to breathing that can be used to identify ineffective breathing patterns: biomechanics and biochemistry, which I’ll explore in more detail here, and psychophysiology i.e. behaviours and symptoms. When working with a Yoga Sports Coach™, we look at the biomechanics of movement and breath in each athlete, for example observing whether they nose breathe, and if the diaphragm is being used. Recent research shows that diaphragm breathers tend to score well on a functional movement screening test, showing the benefit to postural stability that good breathing can bring.

A YSS prescription is often to encourage nasal breathing on the grounds of the cleansing benefits, and effects on the nervous system. What’s not explained as much is that nitric oxide is produced in the nasal cavity during nasal breathing and when inhaled into the lungs enhances blood flow to the well-ventilated areas thereby improving oxygen delivery. It also has a dilating influence on the airways so can reduce the symptoms of EIB. An elite triathlete was able to inhibit EIB by adapting to nasal breathing during exercise.