How Deep Breathing Can Improve Your Performance

In this blog we explore how deep breathing can influence different pathways both at the physiological and psychological levels, potentially leading to improved athletic performance. 

Needless to say, life can be demanding, from both a physical and psychological point of view. While we need stress to grow, and stressing the body (and the following adaptation) is what training is about, our health and performance can be affected by how we are able to effectively cope with stressful situations. Additionally, during key sessions or competitions, psychological stressors and anxiety, or in broader terms, our ability to emotionally self-regulate, can be very important determinants of performance outcomes. 

How does deep breathing play a role?

From a physiological point of view, we can consider homeostasis as a starting point to understand the rationale behind using deep breathing for performance enhancement. As the body via the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to stressful stimuli in an attempt to maintain a state of balance, we can determine how effective this physiological self-regulation process is, by measuring the ANS. This is something Rewire does by measuring HRV, and in particular parasympathetic activity using an HRV feature called rMSSD. The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is characterized by inhibitory responses and restorative processes, such as lowering heart rate and breathing rate, so that the system can go back to homeostasis after facing a stressor. For these reasons, in the past fifty years, a vast body of research investigated the link between HRV and various mental and physical stressors, showing consistently reductions in parasympathetic activity when facing physical and psychological stressors. Additionally, reduced parasympathetic activity has been associated with various clinical conditions (e.g. depression and anxiety disorders) as well as higher mortality risk.

Here is where deep breathing comes into play. Breathing at low frequencies (or deep breathing) causes large oscillations in the instantaneous heart rate, which synchronize with breathing rate. The influence of breathing on heart rate is called Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) and is mostly modulated by the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. Hence, deep breathing can result in training of the parasympathetic system, which might explain at least part of the positive effects of these techniques in the context of reducing stress and anxiety. For the same reasons, deep breathing could help athletes, with the potential of improving emotional self-regulation, coping mechanisms, and performance. In the Rewire app, following a Mindset Recovery session, if you have connected a Heart Rate Monitor you will see the percentage change in HRV during the deep breathing session, which can help you quantify the increased level of parasympathetic activity due to this specific exercise. 

Example of the change in instantaneous heart rate and HRV when deep breathing. We can see how large oscillations take place, with increased heart rate during the inhale, and decreased heart rate during the exhale. Normally, the exhale is when parasympathetic activity has higher influence, and should therefore be at least as long as the inhale

What Happens When We Face a Stressor?

Upon facing a stressor, the ANS responds via two pathways mainly. First, we have an activation of the sympathetic nervous system which is directly innervating most organs. Secondly, we have hormonal responses through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which results in cortisol release. Depending on an individual’s ability to cope with a stressor, these responses can last longer and have a stronger negative effect on an individual’s physiology. As a result, stressors such as negative life events and intense physical training can lead to negative physiological responses such as stress hormone perturbation, immunosuppression, and impaired skeletal muscle repair. All of these aspects can act as mediators for negative outcomes, resulting in reduced health and performance.

While we all experience stress in life, athletes are typically exposed to both “life stressors” and the high intensity and high volume training typical of (elite) sports. Literature has shown how athletes that reported being more stressed had a long-lasting negative response including increased cortisol level for several hours after exercise, with respect to athletes that did not report high levels of life stress. These are key findings as they highlight how many negative stress responses can have implications beyond what we normally think. When using HRV to quantify physiological stress, an association has been reported between the activity of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS and improved emotional self-regulation and performance in mental tasks, further motivating the use of different techniques – such as deep breathing – to improve parasympathetic activity. 

Breathe

Given the physiological and psychological factors just discussed, deep breathing becomes  an ideal strategy to help us self-regulate and better cope with stressful situations. Techniques such as HRV biofeedback, mindfulness, meditation or other forms of deep breathing, can directly affect ANS activity by stimulating the parasympathetic system. Therefore, deep breathing might directly provide a positive impact on the physiological and psychological factors that mediate health and performance. To allow you to achieve this performance benefit, Rewire integrates a range of deep breathing protocols (including box breathing, pranayama, 4-7-8, 5-10 and more) into its Mindset Recovery system alongside a variety of other recovery protocols like subliminal priming, self-talk, visualization and binaural beats.

To date, the scientific literature on deep breathing has shown positive outcomes on a variety of applications outside of sports, from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to depression, cardiac rehabilitation, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers in the field are exploring different pathways that might explain the benefits of deep breathing techniques. In particular, some are suggesting that the high variations in the instantaneous heart rate are due to the baroreflex and that practicing deep breathing could indeed increase baroreflex gain, which might be a causal pathway explaining why hypertensive disorders can also improve using deep breathing techniques. Others have suggested a potential pathway between the baroreflex and neural control, in particular the amygdala, which could explain why improvements are seen in patients with anxiety and depression. Finally, another pathway could involve a strengthening of the parasympathetic nervous system, as shown using electrical vagal stimulation in the context of treating depression.

Psychological and Physiological Outcomes

In elite sport settings, performance is often the outcome of interest. However, in many sports (e.g. in teams settings), performance cannot be unambiguously measured, and is often estimated using different approaches. For example, in many situations, athletic performance is measured during isolated tasks (e.g. sprinting ability), which might have low fidelity with respect to the complexity of an actual game. On the other hand, it follows from the previous considerations that physiological and psychological parameters might be mediating the relation between deep breathing practice and performance.

In particular, psychological measures following deep breathing interventions are probably the most consistent in terms of positive outcomes. In particular, the various studies investigating effects on anxiety (both trait and state) as well as on self-esteem and self-efficacy, often found improvements in most measures. In terms of physiological measures, results are also quite consistent across studies. However, an important caveat here needs to be considered. While there is plenty of data and published literature on the acute effect of deep breathing on HRV (basically the difference between resting conditions and practice), we know much less about long-term effects and the potential impact of these techniques on physiology when sustaining the practice for prolonged time (e.g. several months). These are difficult questions to answer due to the many factors impacting day to day ANS activity, as well as long term changes due to e.g. seasonality. The relationship between acute changes in HRV, baseline changes in HRV, and psychological measures following an intervention therefore requires further investigation.

Wrap Up

Combining insights from biopsychosocial models and basic physiology, we can see how various forms of deep breathing have been proposed as techniques that can help athletes to improve emotional self-regulation and coping mechanisms via a strengthening of homeostasis, with the potential of resulting in better health and performance.

The ability to effectively self-regulate emotions and stress can be beneficial. In particular, apart from the potential for direct improvements in health and performance, other pathways could be positively impacted, from a psychological (e.g. anxiety) and physiological (e.g. hormonal response, strengthening of the parasympathetic system) point of view. Such changes in psychological and physiological factors could then affect other health and performance-related outcomes such as injury risk and recovery.

Based on the available evidence, deep breathing can be considered an effective tool to reduce anxiety as well as acutely improve HRV, and therefore can be considered valuable in the context of emotional self-regulation for athletes.


If you are a Rewire Member (and reading this on your phone), tap here to try one of our deep breathing sessions.

If you are not yet a Rewire Member, sign up for a 7-day free trial today!

What is Readiness?

Knowing when to train and when to recover can be a huge challenge for athletes, but mastering this can reap huge rewards. Rewire brings your data together to create actionable insights, allowing you to optimize your training and recovery and be the best you.

Readiness is a measure of your ability to perform, the system takes a holistic view, measuring your level of overall readiness as well as breakdowns into cognitive, physical and emotional readiness.

We recommend that users build the Readiness Assessment, as well as the Personalised Recovery Session into their morning routine, to get themselves in the best state to achieve their daily goals.

What the Assessment Involves

This system includes a cognitive reaction time test called a Simple Reaction Time Task (SRT). The SRT is helpful for noticing even subtle declines in your focus and decision-making abilities due to mental fatigue. 

The system also includes heart rate monitoring via a heart rate strap which measures your resting heart rate and HRV.   If you enable the integration with Oura, Apple Health or Google Fit, the Rewire system will also incorporate your sleep data as an additional data point for your assessment.  Oura, Apple Health and Google Fit integration can be found in the app settings section.   

Lastly, the readiness assessment system will ask you a series of self-assessment questions. This involves subjective questions developed by Nasa for testing the readiness of astronauts (NASA Task Load Index TLX), as well as subjective questions on training load, mental load and muscle soreness. For each subjective question, you should use the anchor phrases to help find the most appropriate rating.

Personalized Recovery

Rewire recognises that schedules are complex and can’t always be adapted around your Readiness, that’s why we created Personalized Recovery Sessions, to provide you with an on-the-spot solution for a low readiness state. Try building these into your morning routine to optimise your readiness for the day ahead.

What is Neuro-Training?

Imagine this, you’ve just finished a hard days work, put your trainers on, and head to the gym… feels hard, right? That’s the effect of mental fatigue, which has been shown to significantly hinder our performance. The good news is, you can train your tolerance to mental fatigue through neuro-training. By using Neuro-Training you can achieve:

  • Increased Mental Resilience
  • Improved Athletic Performance
  • Improved Decision Making
  • Increased Tolerance to Mental Fatigue

How to use?

We have three types of Neuro-Training Sessions:

  • Pre-Workout – These are designed to be used before a low-intensity workout. These sessions will increase your level of mental fatigue before your physical workout, meaning that you will be training under a level of mental fatigue. Expect this to increase your perception of effort in your workout.
  • Post-Workout – These are designed to be used after a high-intensity workout or skills session. This will finish your workout off with some additional mental load, allowing you to achieve the benefits of Neuro-Training without hindering your physical performance in your high-intensity workout.
  • Standalone – These sessions are designed to be integrated into your week as a standalone mental workout adding mental load to your training plan. They can be used on physical recovery days or as an additional session on your training days.

Before your next workout, try one of our pre-workout sessions such as ‘Quick Build Up’ which you can find under ‘Pre-Workout’, or if you’re reading this on your phone, simply tap the button below. Enjoy!

The Science Behind Neuro-Training

The science behind Neuro-Training first began in a landmark 2009 study that highlighted the negative effect that mental fatigue has on athletic performance. Neuro-Training uses a protocol called Brain Endurance Training (BET) which has been shown in fMRI brain scans and numerous peer-reviewed studies to improve athletic performance by targeting the part of the brain responsible for managing fatigue, decision making and the suppression of undesirable impulses aka will power.

Research done in 2015, showed that brain training is highly effective in improving endurance performance when combined with traditional physical training. Those in the brain-training group had a 3x improvement in time to exhaustion (TTE) than the control group (+126% compared to +42%) over a 12 week training period.

What is Mindset Recovery?

We’ve all been there… turning up to training/competition feeling fatigued, unmotivated and unprepared; trying to manage stress from life, training and work; or suddenly losing focus in the middle of the day. It’s a factor of modern-day life, but Rewire is here to help… Rewire’s Mindset Recovery System contains sessions for a wide variety of goals, including Pre-Workout Priming, Mindfulness, Recovery, Focus and Concentration, and Stress Reduction.

Our Mindset Recovery system involves tools from both Psychology and Neuroscience including protocols of Guided Breathing, Binaural Beats, Subliminal Priming, Visualization, and Self-Talk (there’s more on these below).

Picture this… you’ve had a terrible sleep and woken up feeling slightly fatigued, but have to perform that day… Rewire’s designed to know what protocols you need to get in a positive state to achieve your goals. After taking your Readiness Assessment you’ll be given the option to use a Personalized Mindset Recovery Session designed specifically for your Readiness state and the goal you want to achieve that day. (Note: You’ll need to calibrate your Readiness over 4 days before this is available)

Mindset recovery Protocols

  • Guided Breathing:  Rewire features a variety of different breathing protocols including Box Breathing, Pranayama, 4-7-8, Step Up and more.
  • Binaural Beats:  Binaural Beats are a form of brainwave entrainment.  Binaural beats relax the user by altering (i.e.entraining) the brain’s neuronal rhythm and effect trophotropic changes in autonomic arousal to enhance relaxation and recovery. The system consists of the athlete listening to audio tones that are set at different output levels in each ear to create a sound that the brain converts to a low-level sound which positively impacts the user’s mindset. These are the different Binaural Beat waves used in the Rewire recovery system. Read this recent study for more information.
  • 0.5 – 3.5 Hz – Delta wave for deep sleep
  • 4.0 – 6.5 Hz – Theta for meditation / sleep
  • 7.0 – 12.5 Hz – Alpha for relaxation / dreams
  • 13.0 – 38.5 – Beta for Activity 
  • Visualization:  Visualization has been used by athletes for decades to improve readiness for competition. The Rewire system presents visualization cues to get in the right headspace for training, competition, or relaxation.
  • Self-Talk Mantras: Self-talk mantras have been shown in recent studies like this one to decrease the perception of effort and increase motivation during endurance-based sports. It consists of motivational phrases aka mantras that you repeat in your mind at regular intervals. We have researched mantras used by professional athletes and mindfulness experts and loaded them into the app. You may also create your own from within the Rewire settings section.
  • Subliminal Priming:  Humans are social animals and tend to take positive and negative cues from others.  In recent studies, subliminal priming has been shown to influence the perception of effort and improve mood and motivation. The Rewire system consists of showing positive imagery in quick succession for a positive psychological effect.

Not sure where to start? Try Standard Recovery found under ‘Mindfulness and Recovery’ to see all the protocols we use. Across our user base, we have seen a huge subjective improvement in the user’s state from this session, achieved in just 2 minutes! Give it a try!

Hanson and Kanute End Season at Clash Daytona

Rewire Athletes Matt Hanson and Ben Kanute put a close to their 2021 seasons on Saturday, as the Daytona Speedway swapped motor racing for some of the world’s finest triathletes. Taking on a course in and around a circuit best known for the season-opening Daytona 500 in NASCAR, a 20-strong men’s pro field looked to bring the curtain down in style on a 2021 season that held plenty of intrigue.

The Clash Daytona event took place just over a year on from the 2020 PTO Championships at the same venue, in which Matt Hanson took second place behind a dominant Gustav Iden. The 2021 event saw victories for Norwegian Kristian Blummenfelt in the men’s race and American Jackie Hering in the women’s, the latter taking her first win of 2021.

The two-lap swim course took place in Lake Lloyd, an artificial body of water situated in the centre of the racetrack that was formed by the combination of a high water table, and the removal of enough earth to form the 31° banked turns at either end of the circuit.

After a commanding win by over 2 minutes at the California Ironman 70.3 just over a month prior, Kanute swapped West Coast for East, and was well-primed to take on the two kilometre swim.  The 2016 Olympian led the field through the end of the swim in a time of 24:35, tied with eventual 12th-placer Marc Dubrick, 11 seconds ahead of their nearest challengers.

Matt Hanson was just over two minutes behind, his 26:36 placing him ninth out of the water.

While the bike leg for those in the amateur field took the athletes out of the stadium, the professionals had the benefit of staying within the confines of the circuit, tackling 20 four kilometre laps at a blistering pace. Seventh after the swim, Danish athlete Magnus Ditlev catapulted himself up the field to finish the bike leg in first place, after completing the 80 kilometres in 1:40:44, nearly two minutes faster than his closest competitor.

Both Kanute and Hanson had steady cycle legs, with Kanute producing 1:44:08 for fifth-fastest leg, and Hanson 1:44:32 for seventh-fastest, the pair split by former WorldTour cyclist Adam Hansen. Kanute was fourth into T2, positioned behind Ditlev and the pair who would join him on the podium at the conclusion of the race, Kristian Blummenfelt and Rudy von Berg.

Despite a bike leg that averaged 47.6 km/h, giving him a buffer of over 2.5 minutes ahead of the chasing Kristian Blummenfelt, it did not prove to be enough as the Olympic champion reeled in and caught the fading Dane well before the line. 

It should be no surprise that fresh off the fastest men’s Ironman time in history, Blummenfelt produced a searing run over the 18 kilometres, finishing in a time of 58:18 for the overall victory and a total time of 3:08:30.

Ditlev was the next athlete home, followed by von Berg, with fourth position occupied by a charging Matt Hanson. With Hanson the only man under the hour mark on the run bar Blummenfelt, 59:44 led the Minnesota-born athlete to a total time of 3:12:46, and a healthy prize pot of $5,500.

Kanute unfortunately did not fare so well on his run, his 1:05:47 dropping the 28-year-old two places to sixth overall in a time of 3:16:11. However, the University of Arizona alum can look back at a highly successful 2021 season that cemented his place as one of the world’s best, with a top 10 PTO ranking, and victories in both the California Ironman 70.3 and Escape from Alcatraz, as well as strong showings at both the Collins Cup and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.