Breathing – Self Test

Being able to breathe in a relaxed steady manner through your nose, using your diaphragm, is fundamental to life, to health, and to sport.  Peak performance in sport requires that the cardiovascular and respiratory systems can handle significant loads, but if these systems are already loaded at the outset, at rest, then peak performance will elude the athlete regardless of their dedication, commitment, and consistency in training.

How we breathe also provides insight into our state of health: physical, mental, and emotional states of health.  Medical research has shown that improper breathing patterns correlate with a variety of medical conditions and diagnoses such as: asthma, COPD, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and panic disorder. Plus, research has also correlated poor breathing patterns with poor muscular control and coordination, and low back pain.

Therefore to breathe poorly and attempt to exercise/train may not only lead to disappointment and frustration, it can lead to injury if not serious medical side effects.


Caution: if you have been diagnosed with a respiratory or cardiovascular medical condition, and/or an anxiety or panic disorder please do not self test your breathing.  If uncertain whether or not you have a condition, again, please do not self test your breathing. Please email me at physio@theathletescloud.ca to discuss your conditions/circumstances or inquire with your medical doctor whether a breathing assessment would be appropriate.


breathing-patternThis is the healthy pattern to breathing: an inhale, followed by a slight pause, followed by the exhale which is slightly longer than the inhale, followed again by a pause, with this second pause being a prolonged pause. There is no force with inhalation, nor with exhalation; there is never any holding of breathe to cause a pause. Healthy breathing is performed through the nose, in a relaxed cycle using the primary breathing muscle, the diaphragm almost exclusively.

At rest, the pause after the exhale in healthy individuals (green arrow in diagram) is no less than 5 seconds in duration, and for those in exceptional health, the pause is often as long as 15 seconds for each and every breathe, without any conscious effort to cause this pattern.

Time your entire breathing cycle.  Do not change it.  Do not force it to be anything other than your breathing pattern.  Time how long one cycle takes: the time it takes to inhale, pause, exhale, and pause again. If at rest, the entire cycle is less than 6 seconds then your breathing pattern is likely unhealthy.

Time the duration of the pause after exhale. Do not change it.  Do not force it to be anything other than your pause. Time from the moment you finish exhaling, to the moment you start the next cycle by inhaling. If at rest, the exhalation pause is less than a couple of seconds, or if you have no pause, then your breathing pattern is likely unhealthy.

So what if you have an unhealthy breathing pattern at rest, and you exercise?

Exactly!  What does happen?

If your breathing pattern is unhealthy at rest, then it is likely that your respiratory and cardiovascular systems are already strained.  To exercise is to add more load onto these systems. The fitness industry has educated us that adding load is “good for you” and develops our fitness. If anything we are to take the pain, with “no pain, no gain” the adage of almost all trainers and coaches alike. Unfortunately, this is not the case. To add load onto already strained body systems does not equate to health. You may gain fitness (i.e. the ability to tolerate load for a set period of time, at a set level of intensity), but fitness does note equate with health. You can be exceptionally fit yet be exceptionally unhealthy at the same time.

Health stems from first regaining healthy breathing patterns at rest, then progressively adding load (i.e. exercise) at a rate that provides the body systems opportunity to adapt, gaining both the physiological and psychological capacities to take on the load of exercise (note: this applies to all life stresses, because your body systems do not and cannot differentiate between loads) without risking injury, without compromising health.

If you seek health, if you seek your potential, if you seek performance, then you need to start right, from the beginning… by developing healthy breathing patterns to be able to handle the exercise/training demands you place on your heart, your lungs, your brain, your entire body.

A breathing coaching appointment is appropriate for athletes who have not had any prior breathing difficulties, such as chronic colds, coughs, or allergies, nor any respiratory condition nor diagnosis, and have no history of respiratory distress or surgery which required sedation.

A physiotherapy breathing appointment is required for athletes who have difficulties with their breathing, at rest or with activity (e.g. exercise induced asthma), who have a history of colds, coughs, the flu, or chest pain, who have allergies/sensitivities, who have had to receive oxygen therapy or respiratory therapy, who have or have had any respiratory condition or received a respiratory diagnosis, who have had a surgery requiring general anesthesia, or who have any history of smoking, first or second hand.

For more information on breathing, check out the list of articles on breathing and its relation to low back pain, movement disorders, stress and more on the breathing retraining page.