Laird Hamilton: Harness the Power of Breath

Credit: Photograph by Peter Bohler

What's the one fuel at your immediate disposal during a long or grueling workout? Oxygen. It's obvious; still, most of us think of breathing only when we're sucking wind. That's a mistake, because boosting your oxygen intake before, during, and after a workout gives your muscles the means to push harder and longer, and helps to make training actually feel a lot better. (Which is why I think people get a runner's high: The constant cardio forces them to breathe.)

I recently began a breathing practice with one clear goal — to flood my lungs and blood with O² — and it's made sprints, strength training, and swimming seem more effortless. Here's how to work it into your training.

Before: Prime Your Lungs

During any physical activity, the demand for oxygen rises, leading you to breathe more heavily. But if you reverse that process — increasing your oxygen intake before you train — you can get ahead of the demand curve. So before working out, take 50 quick breaths, inhaling deeply through your mouth for one and a half counts and then exhaling forcefully for one count. (You want a slightly longer inhale to boost the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide.) This takes a little over a minute and helps you begin exercising in a kind of superoxygenated state. Note: Because the surge in O² and the decrease in CO² may make you feel dizzy, never do this breathing technique before a water workout. (The method will, however, train your lungs so that you can swim stronger in the future.)

During: Feed Your Muscles

As you exercise, do miniversions of the technique, taking 10 deep inhales and exhales before a set of sprints, a lift, or a circuit. This keeps the level of O² in the blood high, supplying the muscles with a constant stream of fuel.

After: Speed Recovery

We tend to breathe more heavily for hours after a hard session; it's the body's way of correcting an oxygen debt. By repeating the 50 breaths immediately postworkout, you'll speed this process and get a jump start on muscle repair.