SPORT

Play hard, breathe deeply: can an ancient method of breath control help you function better, faster and longer – and stay healthier, too?

Five years ago Joanne Arnold Madden, a second-place finisher in the 1989 Ms. America bodybuilding contest, had literally exercised herself to exhaustion. She spent long hours in the gym, popped painkillers and muscle relaxants as if they were candy, and found the “zone”–the exercise high that kicks in when mind and body are completely integrated and performance flows almost effortlessly–ever more elusive.

“I threw in the towel,” admits the 38-year-old resident of Maine, a former Ms. Maine and Ms. Natural New England and the mother of three. “For years I’d gotten titles, but I’d been beating the hell out of my body. I couldn’t continue, knowing that I was fundamentally destroying what I’d tried to build. I wanted to train, but I didn’t want to have to pay the price of fatigue, injury and exhaustion.”

Although she doesn’t compete anymore, Madden is still very active, counting tennis, cycling, swimming and weight training among her physical pursuits. But she no longer stresses her body to do them. Her resting heart rate has dropped from 75 to 42, and her working heart rate never exceeds 120 beats per minute (a figure she used to exceed by merely walking). Yet she’s as strong and well defined as ever. She rarely tires or pulls a muscle, and what’s more, says this athlete who knows what it is to exercise hard, her workouts are “blissful.”

What caused such a transformation? The answer is something so basic that it seems almost absurd: Madden finally learned how to breathe.

Breathing is a skill everyone knows, right? That’s what most people think, and that’s why it’s been an often-ignored aspect of training. But take a deep breath. Did you open your mouth? Was your chest the only thing that moved? Then you could probably use a lesson, too, says John Douillard, a licensed chiropractor and former professional triathlete who runs the holistic mind-body-health-and-fitness center, John Douillard’s LifeSpa in Boulder, Colorado. Don’t feel bad; you’re in illustrious company. Tennis pro-Martina Navratilova, former world-class cyclist Davis Phinney, even the Philadelphia Eagles football players, have trained themselves to breathe more deeply in order to improve their performance. (more…)