Conscious Hyperventilation

I sometimes get asked questions about how to breath while sparring, in particular, how to control your breathing when you are really fighting hard.

When you are sparring at an easy to moderate pace then it is a good idea to keep your breath regular, deep and even. You don’t want to hyperventilate unnecessarily. So far, so good: most experts would agree with me on this point.

Now it gets a bit more controversial. I believe that the situation changes considerably when one is engaged in extremely strenuous exercise. Let’s say that you are sparring or competing and you are in an all-out dogfight: you are trading attacks, escapes, takedowns and reversals with your opponent at a fast and furious pace. My advice here is to go ahead and breathe as quick and as hard as you need to, even perhaps a little harder than you think neccesary.

Here is a little story: I used to compete in the Firefighter Combat Challenge, which is an anaerobic event known as “the toughest 2 minutes in sport” on ESPN. In this event firefighters race in full turnout gear and breathing apparatus, trying to complete 5 tasks as fast as they can. These tasks include carrying a load up a 5-story tower, hoisting, chopping, dragging hoses and finally rescuing a life-sized, 175 lb. “victim”. This event is an all-out lactic acid fiesta, and it is common for some competitors to require medical aid at the end of their run.

When I first started competing I struggled to break the 2-minute mark. I’d start my race breathing normally and increase my breathing as the event went on. By the time I got to the finish line I’d be hyperventilating and trying to breath in through every orifice in my body.

Finally a teammate suggested that I start hyperventilating early – about 5 seconds before the race began, and keep on hyperventilating the whole race. I was worried about passing out and he said “yes you might pass out if you weren’t going as hard as you can, but you are going to use all that extra oxygen and still need more”.

I tried this technique that day: in the last few seconds before taking off up the stairs I started taking rapid and very deep breaths. I continued breathing this way for the whole event: every few seconds I reminded myself “breathe, Breathe, BREATHE”. That day I took 10 seconds off my time, which is a huge improvement. Within a year I eventually ran the event in one minute and 33 seconds, which is considered an ‘elite’ level performance.

Conscious hyperventilation not a technique you want to use all the time. That being said, when there is a lot of action in your next grappling match and you know that you are about to get tired, you may want to give it a try.

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