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Performance Breathing: 2-2-4 Sets the Pace, Wins the Race

Why? Because whatever activity you do these days – walking, running, swimming, biking – you’ll do it better and relish it more if you learn to exercise a little control over your breathing.

Call it “conscious breathing” or “performance breathing” or don’t name it at all. Just do it. It’s a semi-secret teaching that will transform your relationship to exercise, because breath is the connection between your mind and your body, and when you tune into it, your inner athlete wakes up, and so do all your forward thrusters.

“When you are focused on your breath,” says Al Lee, co-author of “Perfect Breathing,” “you become intimately in touch with your mind-body and very much in the moment, which improves performance.”

Performance breathing exercises intensify your focus and deepen your concentration, and with that double whammy, workout boredom leaves you forever.

Performance breathing also delivers more oxygen to working muscles and cells. It makes your respiratory muscles stronger and more flexible so you have greater endurance. And yes, it comes free with every set of lungs.

So, what are you waiting  for? Instruction! Lee’s book is  an effective starting point, and  it opens with four basic guidelines. Don’t skip over them. Slow down; take it step by step, breath by breath.

1. Practice your breathing

Practice your breathing exercises in a quiet and comfortable space before you incorporate it into your sport.

2. Clear both nostrils 

A good nose blow will do it, one nostril at a time.

3. Breathe in and out of your nose only 

It may feel odd at first but gradually, over time, it gets easier and easier. Know that breathing through your nose is especially nourishing to the brain. (Plus it protects you from having a bee fly into your mouth, which actually happened to a friend of mine out bicycling the other day, and he ended up with a bloody, skinned knee. But I digress.)

4. Keep the rhythm of your breath smooth and unhurried

Finding your own relaxed pace will help you slip more easily into that meditative space known as The Zone – and from there the happiness hormones are freed and you get to have the best run, golf game or tennis match of your life.

OK. Now for Lee’s core instruction, featured in an American Council on Exercise newsletter.

The introductory breathing cycle is divided into three parts:

  • First, inhale for two counts.
  • Second, hold your breath for two counts.
  • Third, exhale for four counts, and begin again.

That’s it.

Practice this simple pattern while you’re sitting still, until you’re completely comfortable with it.

If your mind wanders during the count, simply start over. It happens to everyone. No judgment, no blame.

Once you’ve got the two-two-four rhythm down, you get to have the fun of applying it to your sport.

In walking, for instance, you inhale for two steps, hold your breath for two steps and exhale for four steps. If you’re cycling, you replace pedal strokes for steps, swimming strokes for swimming. If you’re a tennis player or golfer, use the breathing cycles before a serve or a putt to airlift yourself into a calmer state.

Feel free to experiment with longer counts as the two-two-four cycle becomes second nature – but keep the same ratio. For instance, inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for eight. Advanced practitioners may try six-six-twelve. It’s not a competition. Find your own edge.

I’ve practiced breath control techniques for years, and not only does it improve focus and performance, it’s a wonderful way to bring on sleep at night. As I hope you know by now, getting eight hours of sleep is crucial if you don’t want to sacrifice your personal health to your job.

Just lie in bed, take the time it takes to let go of tension from head to toe and start the count: Inhale for four beats, hold it for four beats, exhale for eight, and see what happenzzz…zzz…zzz…

Marilynn Preston is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website,, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to



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