MONTREAL – I have a friend who listens to her iPod even when we run together. She swears it’s not my voice she’s trying to drown out, rather it’s the sound of her own breathing that drives her crazy.Frankly, I don’t pay attention to how I breathe. Why would I? It comes naturally, even during a workout when the increased demand for oxygen turns up the volume and pace of my breathing. Yoga masters don’t tune out the sound of their breathing. Nor do they ignore it. Breathing is a fundamental part of the practice. It’s considered the body’s central source of energy and the link between mind and body. All exercisers can benefit from paying more attention to how they breathe during a tough workout. The first step of which is realizing that everyone varies their breathing pattern while exercising. The most obvious are swimmers and synchronized swimmers, for whom a specific pattern of breathing is central to the execution of their sport. Veteran swimmers make breathing look easy, but those new to the sport often remark that the mechanics of breathing are one of the most difficult skills to pick up. Runners on the other hand, rarely take the time to evaluate their breathing. In fact, most don’t realize that they naturally adjust their breathing to their stride rate. At a comfortable pace, runners typically inhale for three strides and exhale for three strides. As their pace increases, a cadence of two strides per inhale and two per exhale is common. At a training pace, their breathing changes again to a two-second exhale and a one-second inhale.In the weight room, lifters are instructed to exhale on effort and inhale during the recovery phase, a habit that should be incorporated any time you lift heavy objects be it a loaded barbell or a loaded garbage can. As natural as it feels to hold your breath upon exertion, it causes a spike in blood pressure and puts extra strain on your heart. The mechanics of breathingDuring regular low intensity activity most people breathe in and out through their nose which acts as a natural filter for any gases or particulate matter found in the atmosphere. When it’s cold outside, the nose does extra duty by warming inhaled air to near body temperature before it enters the lungs. As exercise intensity increases however, the need for oxygen exceeds what the nose can deliver and the mouth is called upon to assist. During intense exercise only about a third of the oxygen consumed is through the nose. At rest, men and women breathe pretty much the same. When exercise becomes more intense however, women have to work much harder to than men to move air in and out of the lungs during exercise. Also worthy of note is that during exercise women breathe more air in through their nose than men. They also start breathing through their mouth much later into a workout than men do.Much of the gender difference between breathing patterns is due to a difference in lung size. The bigger the lungs, the more air they can process, which means that men have the edge when it comes not only to the efficiency of sending oxygen to the working muscles but also in the volume of oxygen they are able to circulate. Exercise makes breathing easierExercise helps strengthen the muscles dedicated to inflating and deflating the lungs – which can result in improved breathing efficiency. The diaphragm, which is located between your lungs and the stomach, is one of the most active breathing muscles and can benefit the most from additional strength and endurance. Weak breathing muscles coupled with long bouts of exercise fatigues the diaphragm, which sends an emergency signal to the body instructing it to inhibit the flow of oxygen to the working muscles and reroute it to the organs necessary to sustain life. With less oxygen to fuel movement, exercise intensity decreases and performance starts to dip. Contributing to the fatigue is the rapid, shallow breathing that exercisers rely on when intensity increases. A more efficient way to breathe is taking deeper breaths that fill up the lungs with much-needed oxygen that is in turn sent to the working muscles. This enhanced form of breathing is similar to that taught in yoga and Pilates and involves taking slower, deeper breathes that cause your tummy, not your chest to expand. To feel the difference between belly breathing and chest breathing, stand up and place one hand over your chest and one hand on your belly. Take a big breath until the hand on your belly lifts higher than the hand on the chest.It sounds easy, but if you’ve been a chest-breather for most of your life, it’ll take a while to develop this new technique. Once you’ve got it however, you may notice that exercise feels easier and performance improves. But that’s not the only bonus. A long, deep breath, followed by a similar-length exhale, has the potential to ease overall tension. This is an especially key technique to incorporate at the end of your exercise session when fatigue causes the body to tense up. After a couple of weeks of practice, if you’re still struggling with taking belly breaths, try a yoga class and pay attention to the instructions on how to breath. Better breathing leads to better exercise.