Written by Sara Lee

So, no-crap, there I was sitting in a classroom on Fort Bragg racing three other girls in my small group on who could “go green” the fastest.  The year was 2014 and we had one of the first generations of the emWave (https://www.heartmath.com/science/) hooked up to our ears.  This by no means is the correct intent behind the tool, but we were all type-A, highly competitive women so we will find a way to turn relaxation techniques into a high stakes event. Aside from a yoga class here and there, this was my first truly immersive experience in the application of breath work with the intention of augmenting human performance.

So why has the concept of big Buddha belly breathing matriculated into how we perform as athletes? Short answer, because it works. Continue reading for the long answer.

When it comes to fitness, whether it is a performance in the gym or as a tactical athlete in the realm of military, law enforcement, or first responders, we are held accountable by General Adaptation Syndrome Theory (GAS). The theory addresses how the body reacts to short and long-term stress and how they influence the human body.  

Stress is stress. No matter if we are pulling our hair out at work, sitting in a room full of people we’d rather not be, or throwing iron in the gym we are eliciting a physiological stress response. Further, then that, I now want to influence the stress response so that a positive adaptation is a result, it may be a reduction in anxiety or higher cognitive acuity in my performance.

The inverse U model or “flow state” model addresses the relationship between arousal (stress) and performance.

Very simply, to achieve the peak of human performance we must learn how to manage our stress.

Here is where that hippy science comes to light. We can effectively use the breathing technique to manage our arousal levels.

As athletes we know the feeling, it’s that fluttery and semi angsty feeling as our heart rate rises that lets us know we are outside of the safety of the practice. While it would be interesting to Hulk out, to perform optimally across modalities we as athletes need to be mentally present in the building.

This is done through deliberate diaphragmatic breathing.

Place your hand on your stomach and the other on your chest, then take a breath. Does your chest rise or does your belly expand? For most of us, it will not be the latter.

Incorporating Deliberate Breathing:

  1. Carve out 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted time in a relaxed environment.
  2. Sit upright or lay flat on the back placing one hand on the chest and one on the abdomen.
  3. Take a deep nasal to inhale, filling the belly.
  4. Forcefully exhale, feel the belly collapse.
  5. Repeat the cycle.

This is a baseline, once we are able to easily differentiate and move in and out of these breathing patterns it is appropriate to start incorporating the protocol into practice.

Whether we are choosing to inspire nasally or orally where the air goes matters for the following:

Benefits of Deliberate Breathing:

  1. Reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression
  2. Decreases Heart Rate and Blood Pressure (activation of the parasympathetic NS)
  3. Decreases cortisol
  4. Increases blood flow to the muscle tissue
  5. Increases cognition (managing state of arousal for performance)

Despite breathing being an involuntary event adopting deliberate breathing into our physical pursuits takes a bit of practice. It also builds the foundation for more advanced breathing protocols such as super-ventilation and hypoxic work that can be incorporated into training modalities.

Advancing YOUR Breathing Practice:

Below is a list of resources that you can use to help develop your own practice.

Phone Apps:

  1. Headspace: Meditation
  2. Simple Habit
  3. Breath (iPhone)

Fitness & Lifestyle:

  1. 90/90 Breathing Protocol (best applied during warm-ups)
  2. Power Strength Endurance

Get to know Sara better on Instagram 


Additional Resources:




Recinto, Christine, et al. “Effects of Nasal or Oral Breathing on Anaerobic Power Output and Metabolic Responses.” International Journal of Exercise Science, pp. 507–514.









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