Breathing, Oxygen and Exhaustion

For the past two weeks I have been talking about breathing, concentrating on unusual situations, like conscious hyperventilation and the Valsalva Maneuver. I should probably have started out by talking about something that is a bit more universally applicable.

Let’s talk about this: no breathing equals no oxygen equals total exhaustion.

It’s storytime: a few months ago I was talking with a very frustrated and discouraged grappler. For the sake of this story, let’s call the grappler ‘Fred’. Anyway, ‘Fred’ was a fit guy who did lots of cardiovascular conditioning to help him with his endurance, but had an unusual problem with his grappling. In his own words:

“The situation seems to occur when I train against new people who are very aggressive, usually wrestlers. I try to relax, but it doesn’t seem to be working. I still seem to tense up and gas out. But when I fight guys who are so much better than me I can train for a long time and even roll for 30-40 minutes at a time with minimal breaks.”

In other words he had MORE endurance when he was sparring advanced people who kicked his butt than he did when he was grappling aggressive beginners.

It took some experimentation and discussion, but what we finally discovered was that he was holding his breath while fighting certain types of opponents. When he grappled beginners he tensed up and held his breath because he did not want to tap, or get schooled, by a beginner.

Against advanced grapplers he knew he was going to tap: he could accept that they were more skilled than he was, could concentrate on putting up a good fight and doing his best on the mat.

His anxiety was causing him to hold his breath. No breathing equals no oxygen equals total exhaustion.

The solution was fairly simple: he had to concentrate on his breathing before all else. He started to focus on inhalation and exhalation w
hile doing pushups, while doing Yoga and especially while grappling.

Fred also used a fairly simple tool to ensure he wasn’t holding his breath while grappling: every 5 or 10 seconds he would check in on his breathing and ask himself if he was holding his breath. Submissions, body positions and techniques were all secondary to focusing on the breath, making sure that it continued to flow in and out during the heat of the battle.

Here is what happened in Fred’s words:

“When it came time for sparring, I picked one of the heavier aggressive guys to go against. I did what you said and kept reminding myself to breathe. Every 5-10 secs I was just saying to myself breathe, breathe, and breathe. I wasn’t even thinking ‘too hard’ about my attacks and defense, I just wanted to relax and flow.”

“But you know what happened, I was thinking so clearly. I subbed this guy 5 times in 5 minutes! I have never subbed anyone that many times before in that amount of time. I hit triangles (I suck at triangles, trust me) twice, two of your kneebars, and then the ‘Minotauro’ choke.”

“The important thing was I wasn’t even trying, it was weird. I mean I wasn’t lying like a log, but I was just focusing on breathing rather than just trying to ‘fight’. And everything was so clear. I even let this guy take my back and pass my guard, but I recovered easily.”

“The next rolling partner I had was a solid blue and I asked him to just smash me. He did smash me, but I wasn’t gasping from escaping. I kept breathing and just trying to remember good posture. It was really good. I gave him a tough time and he really had to work to get me.”

“The next partner was probably the same level as me. I kept the breathing concept in mind and I nailed some more moves I don’t easily pull off normally in sparring.”

Things went really well for the next couple of weeks. So well, in fact, that he decided to enter a NAGA tournament:

“Well since everything has been going so well thanks to you I am gonna put my money where my mouth is and compete in NAGA in 2 weeks. My wrestling is something that needs improvement but I feel confident enough that my other attributes will even things out.”

Shortly thereafter I received an email from Fred: below you can read parts of it:


“Stephan! I won my division in NAGA.

Thanks so much for all your help. I was doing well with my breathing until the finals, where I left it all on the mat. I did not notice I was breathing a lot until they called time and I felt the exhaustion. But no one scored any points on me and I got some nice armbars …

Throughout my matches I did the breathing check every 10 seconds. If you told me to compete in NAGA 2 months ago I would have laughed and thought you were crazy.”

If you find your endurance fading unexpectedly, be it when fighting certain types of opponents or in certain situations (competition at tournaments, sparring at other clubs, etc.) the FIRST thing you could do is to ensure that you aren’t holding your breath.Ask someone to watch you, and/or do an internal breathing check every 5 or 10 seconds.

Think a little bit less about technique and constantly remind yourself “breathe, breathe and breathe!” You may be pleasantly surprised.

For more reading on this topic check out the article Keeping the Will to Fight.

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