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Take a Breath:  Focus on Your Breathing to Improve Performance

30 Aug 2015
by Michael D'Antignac

By Michael D'Antignac

If I could give one piece of advice to new triathletes, it would be to focus on your breathing.   Whether you’re swimming, biking or running, focus on establishing a controlled rhythm to your breathing.  Why is this important?  Because your muscles need a steady supply of oxygen if they’re going to produce the energy necessary to carry you through a triathlon.   So the better you breathe,
the better you’ll perform.

Plus, you can use the rhythm of your breathing to monitor your effort and make sure you stay within yourself.  In every race, I see too many athletes struggling for air when they shouldn’t be.  I’m convinced that this often happens because they lost concentration and started overexerting without even realizing it.

I’m not alone in believing that breathing and rhythm are important. When asked what he thought about while training for hours and hours, six-time Ironman World Champion Dave Scott responded, “My rhythms.”  And there have been numerous articles written by people more qualified than me emphasizing the importance of proper breathing and rhythm.  Still, most of us don’t give breathing much thought when we train and race.  Breathing comes natural after all, and there are so many other things to focus on:  gear, watts, cadence, FTP, HR, pace, form, nutrition, etc.  But these things won’t matter much if you run out of oxygen.  


So do yourself a favor and focus on your breathing as you train for your next race. Spend some time establishing a rhythm to your breathing that you can maintain for the given distance at race pace.  Once you’ve got that rhythm grooved, practice overexerting and then getting back into rhythm – since there will inevitably be times in a race when you’re taken out of your comfort zone.

For swimming, I suggest using either a 2:1 stroke to breath ratio where you breathe only on one side or a 3:1 ratio where you alternate sides.  If you’re like me and don’t have a strong swimming background, consider the 3:1 approach.  I’ve found that it helps my form, and breathing on both sides has proven useful in races.


On the bike, you can use your cadence to help establish a breathing rhythm. At a cadence of 90 rpm, I use a 2:2 rhythm, inhaling for two pedal strokes (on the same foot) and exhaling for two strokes.  Be aware that you’ll need to modify this rhythm if your cadence changes.  So if you’re climbing a steep hill and your cadence goes from 90 to 60 rpm, you’ll need to adjust accordingly.

Focus on breathing from your diaphragm (your belly) instead of your chest. This allows for deeper breaths that utilize more lung capacity.  You can practice this by laying down on your back with your knees bent and taking deep breaths with your hands on your stomach.  You should feel your stomach rise
as you inhale and fall as you exhale.  

You can take a similar approach on the run by establishing a breathing rhythm based on your cadence and focusing on breathing from your diaphragm.  I generally use a 3:3 rhythm, inhaling for three foot strikes (not the same foot) and exhaling for three.   Again, be prepared to adjust as necessary.  In addition to hills, I’m usually breathing really hard coming out of transition and need some time to find my rhythm.

In a race, pay attention to how your competition is breathing. You may find yourself locked in with another competitor who is running at the same pace.  If their breathing is out of control, smile and know that they likely won’t be able to hold the pace or you’ll outkick them at the finish line. If their breathing is smooth and under control, smile and know that you’re about to have a special battle (like the one I had with my teammate Tony Orru in Blue Ridge).

Finally, when it comes to the finish line, forget everything I’ve said about breathing and rhythm.  If you’re fighting for a podium spot, a particular time, bragging rights, or whatever, don’t worry about your breathing.  Just pick your spot and run like hell.

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