Winning by a Breath

Breathing is unique in that it is something we can do automatically (like how you are not thinking about breathing right now reading this) or have the ability to control (now that you’re thinking about your breath, you can stop it, push the air out harder, etc.). The diaphragm, a muscle located on the lower region of the ribs below the lungs, expands and deflates the lungs when we inhale and exhale. 

We inhale (primarily) oxygen which diffuses into our bloodstream to be pumped to our working muscles and organs. Then (primarily) carbon dioxide takes the reverse path back out as we exhale. [2] Oxygen is needed as part of an energy producing process to feed the muscles (ATP production) and carbon dioxide is a byproduct produced from the working muscles that needs to be exposed to. The harder the muscles work, the more oxygen needed and the quicker the carbon dioxide needs to find its way out. [1] 

Especially for those of you who are competitive rowers, breathing efficiently to intake as much oxygen and exhaling as much carbon dioxide as possible can allow your competition performance reach new heights. 

What can we do to improve our breath efficiency? Below are three exercises you can experiment with that are introduced in a progressive way. First, let’s make sure we are using our diaphragm as effectively as possible. 

Exercise #1: Diaphragmatic Breath

Purpose: Bringing awareness to the breath and engaging the diaphragm to utilize full lung capacity.  

How To: While in a seated position (tall, neutral spine) or lying down, begin by emptying the lungs full of air, then inhale through the nose allowing the chest to rise first, then the belly. Exhale through the nose by drawing the diaphragm (you can think of your belly button) in and up allowing the belly to press in towards the spine, then the chest follows. Repeat this sequence encouraging the diaphragm to control the breath. If it becomes uncomfortable at any time, take a few normal breaths, and then come back to the sequence. You may find it helpful to have one hand on the chest and the other on the belly.  

Exercise #2: Deepening the Breath (1:1 to 1:2)

Purpose: To exercise the diaphragm and lungs with various pacings that could be applied to several scenarios.  

How To: While engaging a diaphragmatic breath, steadily adjust so that inhales and exhales are matched in duration and air volume (ratio of 1:1). You can do this by counting a number or feeling a pulse for each. Begin around counts of 3, and steadily build to 5, 6, etc. Once 1:1 is comfortable, gradually increase the volume and time of either the inhale or exhale so that you have a ratio of 1:2. For example, inhale 3, exhale 4, inhale 3, exhale 5, inhale 3, exhale 6, continue. 


  • 1:1 can be practiced to maintain energy levels and improve breath volume
  • 1:2 with the emphasis on the exhalation can lower energy levels, inducing the parasympathetic system for rest and recovery
  • 1:2 with the emphasis on the inhalation can increase energy levels, inducing the sympathetic system for alertness and focus

Exercise #3: Applications to Rowing 

Purpose: To bring breath awareness and depth into the rowing technique. 

How To: Whether you are on the water or on the erg, start off at a stroke rate for steady-state (such as an 18). Bring your awareness to the breath and observe where it is starting. When do you inhale and exhale? How long is each breath? How deep (amount of air) are they? Slowly adjust the breath by engaging with the diaphragm to a 1:2 or 1:3 to match the rowing stroke. Inhale on the recovery, exhale on the drive. As you row at various stroke rates and efforts, maintain a diaphragmatic breath and focus on a forceful exhale pairing with the drive finish. Please note that you may breathe strictly through the mouth at certain points of effort versus the nose. 

Using these breathing techniques and pairing that with a Boathouse Uni you are guaranteed to win your next race!

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