The late summer sun baked an eastern North Carolina field as 40 or so 8 to 9-year-old boys ran sprints from one end to the other. Pudgy and winded, I huffed, lagging the middle of the pack.
“Go get water,” shouted one of the leather-skinned coaches. “But you gotta make up the lap you miss while you're over there.”
I didn't care. I guzzled water from the fountain coming off the side of a cement block building. There were no snacks out yet. No one looked happy. We were too young to understand the importance of suffering or training for sports. This was football (albeit peewee football) in rural America. It wasn’t supposed to be fun, but it seemed exactly like what I should be doing.
I jogged back over to the field and started running again. My chest and head pounded. No matter how much air I took in, it didn’t feel like enough. Desperate for oxygen, I stopped and fell to my knees. After a minute, I got up, scanned the field covered in a haze of humidity and sweat, and walked over to my mom.
“I can’t do anymore. I can’t breathe,” I told her. We left the field and planned a trip to the doctor where I was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma. For years, I carried around an inhaler, afraid of that feeling. I felt defined by the diagnosis: a person who can’t run or play with other kids without losing his breath.
In many ways, I’m still learning to breathe. However, I no longer carry an inhaler or believe I have any sort of asthma. I have learned and felt the importance of good breathing. In the past few months, I began practicing short meditations with a focus on conscious breathing.
Through the nose, out of the mouth.
Pull the air down deep until it pushes the diaphragm out.
In one of my last physical therapy sessions with Conner Burk at Architech Sports, he led me through a breathing practice to improve my cardiovascular capacity. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder and took three easy breaths. On the last exhale, we paused breathing and started walking forward while counting our paces. As soon as I felt a strong need to inhale, I stopped. Twenty paces.
“Good,” he said. “Keep practicing this. You’ll get better over time and be able to add paces. You’re increasing your body’s ability to handle built-up carbon dioxide, which will help you when you’re running or doing cardio work.” As we walked inside, he added, “I highly recommend reading The Oxygen Advantage. It’ll give you the science behind this.”
Later that evening, I downloaded the book to my Kindle. Over the course of a week, I sped through it, learning the why behind the what Conner had taught me.
- Breathe only through your nose. Mouth breathing reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to your blood and organs.
- Take short and unnoticeable breaths. Your body actually needs less oxygen than you think.
- Improve your ability to breathe during strenuous exercise by practicing breath holds. This helps acclimate your body to more carbon dioxide.
The last point is key. It's in the space between an exhalation and the next inhale where your body gets uncomfortable, but adapts. It learns how to do more with less. The body actually increases its capacity to go faster and further while using less oxygen. That’s quite the paradox.
For many of us, the holidays are a time to breathe. We exhale all the pain, frustration, and stress of the year. We inhale hope, optimism, and excitement for what lies ahead.
Whether you can get away from work or the pressures of life for a few hours, a day, or a week, a focus on breathing will pay dividends. Find a time to close your eyes, exhale, and pause. Prepare for the next inhale and, while doing so, increase your capacity to do more next time.
A focus on breathing promotes stillness and sense of calm. It provides necessary awareness of oneself. It can decrease stress and increase lung capacity. Through practice, learning to breathe can give you your life back.
Before you leave this page, I challenge you to pause for 30 seconds. Use a stopwatch or timer on your phone or watch. Close your eyes and think about the air as you inhale and again as you exhale. Focus on your breath. It’s amazing what 30 seconds of focused breathing can do for body and mind.