November 4, 2013 posted by

How Holding Your Breath Makes You Fitter

How Holding Your Breath Makes You Fitter

My buddy Dave credits his best-ever kayaking season, one which he made the US national team, on breath hold (or apnea) training. His favorite exercise was to hold his breath and sprint for distance. As the distance increased so did his performances until, as he says, he was crushing guys he’d rarely beaten before.

This anecdote begs a couple of questions: if holding your breathe is so important, how come trainers don’t talk about it as well as, isn’t it dangerous? Let’s take a very brief look at how and why you should hold your breath.

I say brief because to some people, like free divers and surfers (and to a lesser extend kayakers), breath holding is almost a religion. Breath control, an active part of which is learning to hold your breath, is linked to most meditation practices. It’s a deep and complex subject, but all I’m trying to do is open your eyes to something beneficial you may not heard about and, well, explain why it’s a part of my birthday challenge.

According the the book, Breatheology, by Stig Avail Severinsen,

I hope to initiate you to the enormous potential that mind control and conscious breathing can bring to your life in order to manage stress and increase your daily energy level. When your lungs become stronger, you have a better “filter” in your body, you will be able to absorb more oxygen and gain more energy in every cell, while at the same time your body will be more able to efficiently eliminate or expel metabolic waste products.


My breath hold session are varied. As per usual, I multi-task them around my other exercise. Sometimes they are simple timed breath holds, usually preceded with some introductory focused breathing. Other times they are stretching exercise, usually combined with yoga, such as practicing ayurvedic breathing. The there are my Dave  P intervals, running, walking, cycling, etc, while holding my breath. He’s not the only athlete to benefit from this. Big wave surfing icon Laird Hamilton is famous (or notorious) for seeing how long he can hold his breath while riding his bike up hills.

I don’t always work on my breathing, which is probably dumb because whenever I do I see solid fitness gains. I think it’s because, like most people, it doesn’t immediately give you a tangible feeling of results. You’re not pumped. You don’t sweat. You can get tired but it feels more like you’re mentally than physically fatigued. It just doesn’t feel like you’ve been training unless, perhaps, you’ve blacked out inches from reaching the surface of water.

With that in mind, most breath holding is perfectly safe but it can also be a don’t try this at home activity. Especially where water is concerned, though passing out on your bike can be just as bad. In water, there’s a condition called “shallow water blackout” that can occur anytime you’re holding your breath underwater. Underwater is the best medium for increasing your breath holding, especially while doing some diving (because you activate something called the mammalian diving reflex).  I won’t into that here because of space and, well, that it’s so cool you’ll want to check it out. Just remember, never practice this activity alone.


You don’t need to have desire to free dive in order to benefit from breath training. A few minutes here and there throughout your week can provide fitness breakthroughs you probably didn’t think were possible.  Along these lines, you can train practically every process your body does, something we’ll look at in more depth later in the internal organ training post.

Try a set.

As I said, there are many different ways to train your breathing. An easy way to start is to do a a series of holds after any stretching, recovery, or yoga session, after your cool down. Sit quietly in a comfortable position that allows your lungs to expand. Take some deep breaths through your mouth and nose (or ayervedic breath for a minute–Kundalini’s “breath of fire” is great too). Next take some quicker breaths focusing on the exhale (not to the extent of hyperventilating, though it is helpful to learn controlled hyperventilation for max breath hold tests). Then take as deep a breath as you can hold while staying relaxed, hold your breath, and close your eyes and try to use as little energy as possible. If you watch free divers, you see they move in a slow, graceful, and efficient way. The more you move the quicker you use oxygen. Try and get your heart rate to drop. Free divers with pulses in the 40s can often get their (underwater) pulse down to 10 bpm. This isn’t possible on land, but you still want it to drop. If you panic, you’re natural response, it will increase and you’ll run out of air quickly. The goal of a breath hold is to get to a point where it feels as though you’ll never run out of air. Of course, you will, but that feeling only happens when you’re very relaxed, and that’s the kind of training effect you’re looking for. Three sets a couple of times per week is plenty to get started, at which point you’ll probably be hooked enough to research the subject a little more.

Weekend challenge in progress, so the numbers will post tomorrow.

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  • Aaron Baker Cool. Greg LeMond talks about breath control on the bike too. And Ned Overend used to train swimming laps underwater (and he’s still crushing pros half his age).
    2 hours ago · Like

    Steve Edwards Two pretty good testimonials, eh? I think they have two of the highest VO2/maxs ever tested.
    a few seconds ago · Like

  • I’ve been doing kind of the opposite –something you taught me on the Switchbacks one day. Whenever I’m climbing hard (bike climbing, not rock), I focus on breath and take super-deep, controlled breaths, resisting the urge to pant or gasp. As you know, my hill speed continues to improve and I credit this practice. It helps both physically and mentally because sometimes it turns into a moving meditation (Mindful breathing.)

  • True, but breath hold training is mostly breathing, so it’s opposite but the same. You should try the Laird tactic of hold you breath and sprint up the hill, too. Just don’t pass out!

  • How long can you hold your breath?

    • Longer than you. – Jacques

  • So it seems to me that my sleep apnea should contribute the same benefits (I’m not obese nor do I have any of the “problems” so commonly associated with sleep apnea, which I think is a bunch of bullshit myself).

    • I’m not sure. Would be an interesting study but it’s probably too off the radar to get done (though I haven’t checked). My first thought is that sleep apnea would interfere with some of the recovery aspects of sleep, which is the most powerful natural ergogenic effect that can happen to the body. Also, as opposed to actual apnea training, you’re not pushing your body to limits, which is the point where most training is more effective. Like most processes, however, with some negatives come other positives so, yes, you might be correct in thinking there are some positive effects. I would still opt to correct that if it’s a possibility though.

    • I came across this post while researching something else on the internet.

      I have sleep apnea myself and I’m one of those outliers who’s slender, relatively fit and has a relatively healthy lifestyle. I also practire holding my breath, deep breathing and other breathing techniques,.

      When you purposely hold your breath, you’re taking a conscious action in which you purposely inhale sufficient oxygen for a specific amount of time. The amount of time that you spend holding your breath in comparison to the 24 hour cycle is negligible.

      On the other hand, in the case of sleep apnea there’s a constant and frequent interruption of the air flow to your brain during your sleep time. For instance, I know somebody who has getting only 30% of the oxygen they were supposed to get during sleep. This has many other ramifications besides the obvious, such as disrupting your sleep pattern, multiple awakenings at night (not everybody experiences this), etc.

      Also, these studies have been done. Untreated sleep apnea increases your chances of having a heart attack, stroke, fibromialgia, etc.
      Imagine if you held your breath 50% of the time while you were awake, for instance.

      I only posted this because I’m going thru hell trying to get my sleep apnea treated. My mom also has it, but she was diagnose much later in life. She suffers from fibromialgia, working memory issues.

      If you have had a sleep test done in which it was confirmed that you are experiencing a significant amount of apneas per hour, please follow thru with treatment in any way that’s available to you. You may not feel the consequences now because the longer you wait, the higher the chances of experience permanent negative health conditions.

  • When you purposely hold your breath, you’re taking a conscious action in which you purposely inhale sufficient oxygen for a specific amount of time. The amount of time that you spend holding your breath in comparison to the 24 hour cycle is negligible. When you have sleep apnea you stop breathing multiple times during your sleep time.

  • Thanks for those comments, Drextor. Makes perfect sense and good to know.

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