Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Breathing: An Audit for Movement Quality and Conditioning

A growing topic the fields of performance and rehabilitation is the importance of breathing mechanics.  Exactly how to breathe correctly is a vast topic unto itself and one that is impossible to address adequately in a blog post.  In fact, the mechanics of breathing and identifying good exercises are sometimes less important than learning how to glean information from breathing assessments and determining which exercises are most appropriate for each athlete.  

Mastery of breathing skill plays a vital role in human development.  With each stage of advancement in movement complexity, a young child must prove the ability to obtain oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the lungs.  The child’s capacity for advanced movement is always checked by its ability to breathe.  This instinct is one of our many survival mechanisms that keeps us alive.     

Observation of breathing is one of the first assessments we can perform as coaches even before formal movement screening, technique analysis, and capacity testing.  Think of breathing as an audit.  As with any audit, we can ignore the message or we can take appropriate remedial action.  Respond appropriately to an IRS audit and you might escape trouble…ignore the audit and life can be miserable.  An athlete who overuses the shoulder and neck muscles while breathing is at risk for a wealth of movement pattern dysfunctions and injuries.

In endurance sports (running in particular), there’s a lot to be said for the “old school” talk test methods by which we can rate our effort levels.  An athlete who gets overloaded at one of the higher levels will often resort to survival breathing strategies that infect other aspects of movement.  When coaches implore athletes to "relax the shoulders" or "don't cross the arms over center", it is often because the athlete has not mastered less demanding training loads and must compensate via breathing strategies to tolerate higher loads.  Below is a sample scale to assess effort level by respiration...nothing new for most runners, but something that we should never discard with the advent of quantitative gadgetry.

  1. Easy running – Conversational
  2. Tempo running – A few sentences without strain
  3. Fast intervals – A phrase or two
  4. Racing – A few scattered words

Ultimately the goal is to impart authentic breathing at the highest levels of movement without conscious thought.  


In cases of dysfunctional breathing, we’re simply trying to restore what each individual had as an infant.  Nonetheless, altered breathing during progressions provides valuable information.  If an athlete can’t maintain authentic breathing patterns during advanced exercise or is struggling during work that should be easy, then maybe the athlete is not in the right place at that time.  Either revisit the overall structure of the program, modify the exercise progression, or call an audible for the day’s workout. 

If you don’t see relatively quick progress in a short period of time at the rudimentary stages of breathing corrections with a seemingly healthy athlete, there may be other issues at work, such as tissue restrictions, stress, and/or pain.  Breathing could play role in each of these, but a lack of improvement in breathing interventions indicates we need to pull other tools from the toolbox or refer out to those with appropriate skill set.   


Anatomy of Breathing

Breathing Patterns: Assessments

The Balloon: Your New Clinical Tool


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