Breathplay: Turn Your Breathing Upside Down
“Who the hell is this guy, Ian Jackson?” That was the way one of my fellow competitors characterized his intimidation before the start of the first Big Island Ironman triathlon back in 1981. Jackson had announced his confidence of an overall win in the press, and given the infantile level of the sport back then, nearly everyone could be considered a threat. Because we were worlds apart, I was intrigued with his creative approach.
By John Howard and Gina Poertner, CHES
Like most of the competitors, I was submerged in the physical prowess of the sport while Jackson dealt in the metaphysical and sublime. At first, I thought I had the edge when I actually won the event and Ian finished well back in the field. It was much later on the bike—the strongest element of my multi-sport career—that I came to realize I had only scratched the surface of what human performance really means.
The highpoint of Ian Jackson’s notoriety came after the 1984 Olympic Road Race when Alexi Grewal became the first American to win the Gold medal. Grewal, who had worked with Jackson before the games, called Jackson’s work, “The most powerful tool that can be imagined.” The original name Jackson gave to his technique was BreathPlay, a well documented but seldom understood technique that emphasizes the out-breath.
BreathPlay makes breathing easier and more efficient. Among the research that supports the principles of BreathPlay, which Jackson would eventually call “Zooming,” is Daniel Wojta’s study of 25 top cyclists at the University of Toledo. Wojta found that those riders who used BreathPlay significantly increased endurance and improved aerobic capacity by more than 17%. BreathPlay flips the active and passive phases of breathing upside down. As Jackson used to explain, “Instead of just sucking in and letting it out, try pushing the air out then let it back in.”
When I had the opportunity to work with Jackson at the Baylor School in Tennessee, he explained to me that I needed to set up a breathing pattern which would vary based on the intensity of the activity. “When you breathe,” I remember him saying, “Flatten your stomach as you breathe out. Time your breaths around your pedal stroke. The rhythm that follows is always odd-numbered, three out, followed by two in.” On longer tempo climbs I found the two-out, one-in pattern worked best for me.
While he was working with Wojta, Jackson was also teaching the technique to the USA Cycling Team. USA took 10 riders for control and measured their actual VO2 max, heart rate, blood pressure and perceived exertion. At the completion of a 10-day test, they repeated the same protocol using BreathPlay. The results showed the cyclists increased their endurance by more than 7%. While this early test did not include actual power testing, it was noted that the 10 cyclists delayed the onset of anaerobic metabolism (the point where the body can no longer get enough oxygen from breathing and begins to use stored energy in the muscles) by 17-25%. Those who took the test found the BreathPlay version of the test easier to perform.
How It Works
According to Wojta, when you are exercising you use a lot of energy just to get air. By making a conscious effort to control your breathing, the BreathPlay group breathed much more efficiently at maximum workout effort. Jackson taught BreathPlay techniques to a number of athletes, myself included, back in the 1980s. For cycling, Jackson recommended getting a rhythm established. For flat ground tempo training that might automatically include a three-out/two-in breath count with strong emphasis on the extension of the out-breath. In his CD called Zooming, Ian worked with a musical director to create an original score in which Jackson weaves his verbal suggestions as you turn the cranks. Using your best ear phones and riding a trainer in pitch darkness you may, as I did, swear that the one hour and ten minute CD could not have been more than a few minutes.
An important component of training and correct breathing is how our bodies are positioned and supported both on and off the bike. Posture affects breathing, and conversely, breathing affects posture. We start our cyclists in the correct posture on the bike with our signature PowerFiTTE™ positioning which enhances the ability to draw breath in and out with less effort. Off the bike our cyclists practice breathing techniques that, when seated or standing, naturally brings them into an improved posture to accommodate the exercise.
Try this on your next trainer ride: Turn out the lights and settle into a cadence of 90-95 rpms in a moderate gear. Use instrumental music to maintain the beat if desired. Then:
• Breathe in for 3 downstrokes of your pedals, letting the air in without undue effort.
• Breathe out for 6 downstrokes, forcing the air out with an audible “sss-sss.” Press your belly muscles towards your spine on each out-breath.
• Breathe in again for 3 downstrokes, let air come in naturally without force.
• Breathe out for 6 downstrokes with the intentional and audible, “sss-sss.”
Continue this pattern and let your concentration go to the rhythm of breathing. After a bit of practice, you will find that your intentional thinking turns to an automatic and almost hypnotic state, breathing and pedaling fall into sync with ease. See how you do in the first 30 minutes or so, and note how you feel.
Ian Jackson firmly believed that when these techniques finally get out, they would turn the sports world upside down, which may explain the language in his Upside Down analogy. Sadly, he never saw this happen in his lifetime, and it is up to us to make sure his legacy as a top trainer remains intact.
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing, with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com.
Gina Poertner, CHES is the owner of Life Balance Sports, focusing on cycling, triathlon, and running. She is also a FiTTE System Practitioner and Instructor for John Howard Performance Sports and specializes in bicycle fitting and positioning. Find out more about Gina and her coaching at www.lifebalancesports.com.