A photo I posted on Facebook recently sparked quite a bit of curiosity, so I have decided to explain myself and tell you all how I ended up looking like this one Friday night in Amsterdam.
In my ongoing search to find more ways to make our running easier and more enjoyable, a few years ago I was introduced to Oxygen Advantage, a breathing technique for sport which is scientifically proven to improve performance and reduce fatigue. Highly recommended by fellow Chi Running instructors, Oxygen Advantage is made up of series of exercises which include breath holding and nasal breathing to help mirror altitude training and increase our body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles that need it efficiently. The technique is fast growing popularity with both elite and recreational athletes with incredible results across all sports, not just running.
A Weekend Break
Wanting to share this knowledge with my students, and certainly help my own running, I joined 16 fitness and health coaches and enthusiasts from all around Europe all keen to learn more about the power of the breath. Hearing the success stories from others, I was excited about what lay ahead. Although secretly I was just as excited about having 3 nights solid sleep away from a toddler!
Why Train our Breath?
Breath is often neglected as we focus our attention on nutrition, flexibility and strength as complementary ways to improve our sport. However, the breath is often what lets us runners down. From exercise induced asthma to breathlessness when running, anxiety and fatigue, our breath controls a lot more than we think. We focus on strengthen so many of our muscles, but how often do we focus on training our diaphragm? As the diaphragm fatigues during exercise, it draws energy from our extremities, hence slowing us down. Isn’t it time we trained our diaphragm rather than just the legs!
The man behind Oxygen Advantage is Irishman Patrick McKeown. As he led our instructor training course, he gave us insights into his own breathing difficulties and asthma as a child which triggered his interest in the subject. He explained how over the past 20 years he has worked to improve breathing in asthma sufferers via the Buteyko method and how he has made the transition now into breathing training for sports performance. He explained that many elite athletes are breathing inefficiently and could gain an advantage by paying more attention to their breathing patterns. Chronic over-breathing is a consequence of our modern lifestyle. Breath work is gaining more and more recognition in all sports now as the additional piece in the jigsaw for peak performance.
Night Time Breathing
Patrick described that our breathing at night influences how we breathe during the day and that in turn transfers into our breathing in sport. Which brings me back to the reason why I looked like I was being held hostage in my photo. After Day 1 Patrick asked us to sleep with our mouth taped to ensure we would nasal breathe at night. I was apprehensive at first, but putting on the tape 20 minutes before I went to sleep made me acclimatise to it. After a few minutes I hardly noticed it, apart from when I went to brush my teeth!
Back in School
Day 2 involves a lot of theory which reminded me of science class in school but also a chance now to practice the 11 exercises which Patrick has spent many years devising. Most of the exercises were not physically challenging but did involve an element of breath hold that certainly I wouldn’t describe as comfortable to start with. The same exercises are prescribed to all athletes across all sports but with different intensities based on the individuals starting point. Each athlete has initial breath measurements taken which helps the coach tailor a programme to suit their level.
Breath of Fresh Air
Staying at the edge of a National Park I couldn’t resist a little evening run to explore. The only goal of my run was to attempt to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t brave wearing tape for this one for fear of scaring the locals, but I did aim to breathe through my nose and enjoy the scenery. What a glorious run. I even had to stop to take this picture. The light at the end of the tunnel.
How it works
Practicing the Oxygen Advantage technique helps us increase our tolerance to carbon dioxide in our body and in turn make the body send more oxygen to the cells that need it to perform. Between breath holding and nasal breathing, we train the body to simulate high altitude training without having to put our body though highly intensive training. With a list of proven benefits, it is a wonder it hasn’t been in the spotlight sooner as mainstream for sport. I can only imagine how many injured athletes could use the down time to maintain fitness by just working on breath rather than panic about losing condition.
For mere mortals
My aim for the weekend was to return home with some tools and tips for my running students, my own running and to help us all run better by paying more more attention to our breath. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It was humbling to see how may own breathing fared against the ideal breath. After years of just letting my breathing happen, certain habits had developed and I wasn’t using my lungs or diaphragm to their full potential. The most important thing I have come away with is an awareness of my breathing outside of exercise and my potential to improve it. I now catch myself noticing my mouth open, or secretly checking my toddler (and husband) to see if they are nasal breathing while they sleep.
As I work on my case studies and exams I intend to practice myself and make my running students guinea pigs over the next few weeks (watch out girls). I will then teach Oxygen Advantage formally in workshops. My workshops will cover part theory but most importantly the full 11 exercises and drills to tap into our fitness potential by opening up our airways, helping the body to transport oxygen more efficiently around the body and in turn improve our performance, reduce fatigue and anxiety and help us perform at our true breathing capability rather than have our breath hold us back. I’m excited to share it will you all very soon. In the meantime, keep your mouth shut 😊
To find out more about Oxygen Advantage, have a look at some of these videos and podcasts.