Kevin Neeld — Hockey Training, Sports Performance, & Sports Science

5 Ways Breathing Affects Sport Performance

Being a strength coach and a manual therapist has given me a different perspective on how important it truly is to assess athletes for structural and functional limitations and address them before they become serious injuries and surgeries. Exercises that revolve around optimizing breathing patterns have become a big piece of that equation for me over the last few years. Despite being a “soft” training modality, these strategies can have a significant impact on sport performance. Below are 5 major ways that breathing can affect sport.

1) Improving Joint Range of Motion
Different activities require different ranges of motion (obviously), and different sports have different joints that tend to get looked at more than others. For example, the idea of a shoulder internal rotation deficit in baseball pitchers has received a lot of attention over the last decade, which lead to the popularization of the “sleeper stretch” to help improve IR. Interestingly, you can lay the athlete down on the floor, teach them to engage their left abdominal wall to help pull their ribs down while they cycle a few breaths in through their nose and out their mouth and right shoulder IR will improve tremendously (often times 15-30 degrees). A similar approach can be used to restore hip adduction and symmetry in hip rotation range of motion. The question then becomes “do these athletes need to stretch?” Simply, if you can get the desirable range of motion in 30s of breathing, then you probably don’t need to stretch. The range of motion was limited because of the position of the pelvis and thorax, NOT because of a limitation in the shoulder. Using specific breathing exercises can restore neutrality to the pelvis and thorax allowing the expression of the available range of motion.

This is a breathing exercise from the Postural Restoration Institute that I use a lot to elicit rapid changes in shoulder and hip range of motion.
2) More optimal movement patterns
When an athlete starts in a non-neutral position, their range of motion will be limited in predictable ways. This is an idea I’ve talked about a lot in the past (See: Managing Structural and Functional Asymmetries in Ice Hockey: Part 1 and Part 2). Attempting to perform any sporting movement that passes through the positional end range limit will lead to a compensatory pattern. It’s interesting to work with athletes that are aware of these compensations. For example, I recently spoke to a pro baseball pitcher who said he felt like his hips hit a certain point during his delivery where they’d shift to the side, which was limiting his power. Not surprisingly, our assessment found he lacked IR on that front leg, meaning he would hit end range and then shift laterally as a strategy to still deliver the ball to the plate. Using breathing-driven exercises to help restore neutrality frees up range of motion (as mentioned above), which can then be incorporated into functional movements. This is one of the reasons I often tell skill coaches that my job is to make their life easier!

3) Decreased injury risk
Injuries are a tricky thing. There is a lot that goes into what predisposes an athlete to specific injuries and what strategies should be targeted to help decrease his or her risk. That said, muscles that are poorly positioned to do their job, fatigue, and poor recovery are three factors that are hard to ignore. The latter two will be discussed next, so I’ll just address the first. As I’ve alluded to above, positional breathing can help restore the pelvis to a neutral position and therefore unlock range of motion and restore the surrounding muscles to a more optimal position to do their jobs. By tying in specific exercises with respiration, you’re able to groove a better motor pattern and help reinforce more optimal function. As an example, a lot of athletes suffer from left groin pain secondary to being in a position of  flexion/abduction/external rotation and either attempting to push further into abduction/external rotation and/or attempting to use a long, neurologically weak adductor group. This position also leads to a descending anterior pelvic floor and ascended posterior pelvic floor. In other words, the anterior pelvic floor is in an “inhalation” position, and the posterior pelvic floor is in an “exhalation” position. Using an exercise like the Right Side Lying Left Adductor Pulback below allows the athlete to restore their pelvis to a neutral position, and engage their left adductors in a shorted position to help restore motor control in this range. By pulling the femur back on the inhale, the athlete can also “open up” their posterior hip capsule, helping to shift this into more of an inhalation state. By pulling the left knee down into the right leg upon exhalation, the athlete can “close down” their anterior pelvic floor, helping to shift this into more of an exhalation state, ultimately improving the ability of the pelvis to move reciprocally from a neutral position during the various phases of respiration.

4) Delaying fatigue through changes in pH
pH is a significant factor in dictating the efficacy of muscle contraction. During high intensity activity, when the demands of the activity cannot be fully met by aerobic metabolism, pH levels lower as hydrogen ions accumulate as a byproduct of glycolytic metabolism. With this in mind, utilizing optimal breathing patterns, while still activity appropriate (as I mentioned here: Chest Breathing vs. Belly Breathing), can help maximize air exchange and therefore either delay the point at which metabolism changes to primary anaerobic processes and/or help facilitate a more rapid restoration following a high intensity effort.

Admittedly, making the leap that stationary breathing exercises will improve sport conditioning is confounded by a lot of factors. That said, I always come back to the idea that if an athlete does not possess the positioning, mobility, core control, and diaphragm power to hit a few sets of quality breaths in a somewhat static, relatively quiet environment, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll be able to do so while in competition. In other words, by removing the confounding factors we have a more realistic window to assess and train a pattern, as we do with all aspects of human performance that is then available to the individual to utilize in their sport.

5) Shifting into a parasympathetic state quickly following activity
I get a lot of questions about how I incorporate PRI or breathing exercises into a team setting. One of the methods that we use breathing for is to help elicit a shift toward a more parasympathetic state following training sessions and sometimes following practices if I’m at the rink.  Hyperinflation is associated with a more sympathetic state, so providing an opportunity for the athletes to lay down, exhale fully, and inhale calmly can quickly shift them more parasympathetically. This also highlights why optimizing breathing patterns can have a profound impact on everyday life; if we’re living life in a constant state of unwarranted sympathetic tone because of the breathing stereotype we use, we’re tapping into a lot of “fight or flight” resources that could be better utilized when we actually need them. This idea of facilitating a faster recovery is one of the main selling points I use in a team setting. More specifically, I let our athletes know that it will help them fall asleep faster at night. In hockey, as I suspect in many sports, a lot of games finish fairly late and players are amped up afterward. Despite getting home at 10-11pm, many won’t fall asleep until after 1. Using this strategy has helped a lot of our players “dim the lights”, so to speak, both physically and mentally and fall asleep faster.

Despite these concepts being presented separately, they are all very interrelated. All of the body’s systems influence one another. Simply, breathing exercises can be used to improve range of motion, joint stability, air exchange, and recovery from training. As a strength and conditioning coach, these are all things that can positively influence the athletes and clients we work with, which is why breathing exercises have become a mainstay in our programs.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

P.S. If you’re interested in understanding how position can influence respiration, range of motion, injury patterns, and the training process, check out my new DVD set Optimizing Movement, which has received rave reviews from professionals in rehabilitation and training settings!

Optimizing Movement DVD Package

Please enter your first name and email below to sign up for my FREE Athletic Development and Hockey Training Newsletter!

Kevin Neeld

Kevin Neeld Knows Hockey

Kevin has rapidly established himself as a leader in the field of physical preparation and sports science for ice hockey. He is currently the Head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins, where he oversees all aspects of designing and implementing the team’s performance training program, as well as monitoring the players’ performance, workload and recovery. Prior to Boston, Kevin spent 2 years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks after serving as the Director of Performance at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ. He also spent 5 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with USA Hockey’s Women’s Olympic Hockey Team, and has been an invited speaker at conferences hosted by the NHL, NSCA, and USA Hockey.