In combat sports we re-learn how to breathe.
Boxing coaches will teach you to breathe out with each punch. Jiu jitsu instructors will remind you to breathe steadily through the entire match. Short breaths are good for explosive movements like strikes, while deep, relaxed breathing facilitates the sustained movements of grappling.
While advice like “breathe while moving” might seem obvious or redundant, it isn’t. This is because many new combat sports practitioners simply find themselves unconsciously holding their breath. And since new athletes often don’t yet possess good cardiovascular conditioning, their level of perceived exertion skyrockets because they accidentally forget to breathe while under stress.
Usually, respiration is an automatic process regulated by that little knot of grey matter located towards the back of your skull which connects your spine to the rest of your brain. This is called the brainstem. You can think of it as your lizard brain: it controls the extremely basic, unconscious functions (such as your hear rate, breathing, sleep cycle, and ability to maintain consciousness) that all animals have and which will hopefully run on autopilot all of your life.
But respiration also has a voluntary override. This post will address the technique and benefits of learning to toggle this override.
If you’ve ever taken a yoga class you know that yoga is so much more than just stretching. A good yoga instructor will cue you to bring your awareness to your breath and draw it into your chest, abdomen, and nostrils. This is because learning to control your breathing, especially in difficult or strenuous circumstances, helps still the mind and re-focus your efforts.
Even in less intense circumstances, bringing awareness to your breathing will teach you to notice the mind’s tendency to leap around from one thing to the next. By beginning to observe this habit in yourself you can learn to shut it off and thereby become more fully present in the moment.
While yogis and practitioners of formal meditation call this “mindfulness” or “Being,” many athletes refer to it as being in “the zone” or in a “flow state.” Though combat might seem to be about as far away as you can get from peaceful meditation, the two are not so different because being in the zone is just a form of moving meditation. With complete presence comes the ability to respond calmly and without hesitation as events occur.
As you learn to control your breath and incorporate this into your training you can begin to let go of the conscious override and let it shift back to being a mostly automatic process. (Which happens to be how many such functions work: they are conscious while you learn them, then they switch over to being unconscious once the skill is acquired.)
An added bonus to this approach is that steady breathing increases oxygen intake, which in turn improves athletic performance. This also helps regulate heart rate, improve recovery time, and bring oxygen into the blood to help muscles function. On the psychological side of things, it’s benefits include decreasing anxiety and shifting attention away from pain. This allows for more efficient allocation of mental resources, especially when learned well enough to be automatic.
Practicing MMA will teach you to keep breathing when you feel the adrenaline flooding into your body, to keep breathing when you’re taking hard shots the face, to keep breathing when you’re three rounds into a fight and still not sure how you are going to seal the deal before time runs out.
Of course, learning to keep breathing under duress comes in handy in a variety of less dangerous (but no less intense) situations, such as job interviews, presentations, performances, and networking events– to name just a few. Set aside a few minutes to practice each day and you’ll likely find numerous ways to use this skill in your daily life.