People don't think much about breathing. Of all the things we take for granted, breathing has to be number one – even though it's our main source of life and energy. When I started focusing on my breathing, I became a stronger athlete and was better able to control my levels of effort and pain.
One of the best ways to become more conscious of your breath is to start breathing through your nose instead of your mouth. Deep nose breathing brings the breath deeper into your diaphragm – the muscle that separates your lungs from your stomach – you can actually feel your diaphragm expand when you nose-breathe. This causes your abdomen to expand, creating a downward pressure on your stomach that forces air into your lungs and increases blood flow to and from your heart. Abdominal breathing also improves the flow of lymph, which contains white blood cells, helping boost your immune system. And if you've ever taken a yoga class, you know that diaphragmatic breathing is relaxing.
If you stick to mouth breathing, the air you inhale will expand only your rib cage, unless you really focus on bringing the breath deep into your abdomen. Nose breathing forces you to diaphragm-breathe more often. This is why some long-distance runners will try to breathe through the nose, and if you ever see a boxer start to breathe through his mouth in a fight, people will say, "He's done." Because once a guy goes to breathing through his mouth, he's just desperate for more oxygen.
You have to practice nose breathing for it to be a natural habit. Sometimes I'll try to nose-breathe for an entire day. Or I'll bike or run and try to breathe through my nose the whole time. This forces you to be more efficient because it cranks up your heart rate – any time you're air-deprived, your heart rate gets jacked up – and increases the difficulty of your workout. So when you return to normal breathing, exercise feels easier, and you should be able to bump up your pace and intensity.
Getting pounded by heavy surf taught me how important it is to breathe deep. When your head pops out of the water for only a second, you have to learn to suck in as much air as deeply and quickly as possible. When you feel vulnerable, like when you're surfing big waves, rock climbing, or skiing downhill, your breathing becomes fast and shallow, decreasing the amount of oxygen getting to your blood and muscles and limiting your ability to react quickly. But if you breathe deeply, you calm your body and ready your muscles to move.
When women give birth, they're told to breathe through the pain. The same is true when you're weightlifting or doing anything strenuous. Breathing deeply and exhaling consciously will increase how much effort you can give and improve your sense of well-being. When I'm getting deep-tissue massage and it's excruciating, if I hold my breath, it hurts twice as bad. But if I breathe through it, it's as though I can exhale the pain out and relieve it through my breath.
Three ways to breathe better
Tread and breathe
Treading water is great for practice because it's so demanding on the breath. Tread while breathing in through your nose and out your mouth. Then breathe in through one nostril and out the other, and switch. Afterward, you'll feel so oxygenated – like you've been wearing an oxygen mask.
Try holding your breath when you exercise. For example, I'll run the beach and breathe normally until the first lifeguard tower – then I'll hold my breath running back. This makes the training harder than the activity, so the activity itself can become easier.
Breathe for 100
Take 100 inhalations through your nose, exhaling through your mouth. Then try taking 100 breaths through one nostril, breathing out through the other. Increase the difficulty by holding your breath after you inhale and exhale – exhale, hold, inhale, hold, exhale, hold, and so on.