Russian Breathing Techniques for Superior Performance & Resilience

by Pavel

Before focusing on anything else, an athlete must become strong first.

But what comes second?


The three lines below follow the improvement in different qualities—strength, power, and the speed of voluntary muscle relaxation—in game athletes from a low intermediate level on the left to advanced on the right:

In 17 out of the 20 sports evaluated by Russian scientists the relaxation ability was more important than either strength or power at the elite level. It was suggested that the strength and power reached by high intermediates (Level I-CMS) are sufficient for reaching world class performance in many events—and athletes progress from intermediate to world class through improved relaxation.

(In case you decide that you are already strong enough after reading this, consider that Russian boxers snatch their bodyweight and teenage girl jumpers casually single leg squat with 40-50kg for sets and reps. These “intermediate” standards will not impress any weightlifter or powerlifter, but they are not something that you will reach casually. Yes, you still must be strong first.)

The benefits of muscle relaxation training

Soviet sports scientists realized the necessity to improve voluntary muscle relaxation back in the 1930s. Research in the decades that followed revealed the benefits of training it to be powerful and many:

  • Increases speed
  • Significantly correlates with reactive ability and explosive strength
  • Increases endurance—without compromising speed-strength
  • Improves coordination
  • Decreases the motor reaction time
  • Accelerates recovery after training
  • Reduces injuries induced by fatigue
  • Lowers overtraining odds
  • Improves special work capacity and athletic performance
  • Has a favorable effect on the function of inner organs
  • Strengthens resistance to physical and psychological stress
  • Increases athletic longevity

Traditionally, athletic training has been a zero-sum game. You have a limited “pie” of time and recovery and whenever you give one quality a bigger “slice”, you have to take some away from another quality. Relaxation training is philosophically opposite: it builds a bigger pie. Not only training this quality does not take anything away from others—it gives a bump to other attributes plus accelerates recovery to enable you to train longer and harder (or just to have more energy and feel better).

How do elite athletes and soldiers react to extreme stimuli?

A high performing unit—machine, animal, or human—comes with well-tuned “on” and “off” switches (technically speaking, “a balance of excitation and inhibition in the CNS”).

A less effective one has its “on” switch stuck.

Any voluntary movement starts with excitation of the appropriate nerve cells in the brain. They in turn signal the muscles to contract. Inhibition of these neurons causes the muscles to relax. If the CNS is overexcited or inhibition (the “off” switch) is not powerful enough, some of these neurons will remain turned on and keep commanding the muscles to contract at times when they should be relaxing. This trace bioelectrical activity disrupts coordination between muscles and makes the body fight itself. This reduces speed and is the main reason of serious injuries and muscle tears, according to Prof. Yuri Vysochin.

This “driving with the brakes on” obviously demands more energy. But the constant tension also hampers circulation and limits the aerobic metabolism. Glycolysis gets out of control and acidosis sets in, with a laundry list of problems.

To make the matters worse, all these bad news further excite the CNS, feeding a vicious circle. Like a fly in a web: the more it thrashes, the worse things get…

When a mere mortal equipped with a “hyper” nervous system and muscles that fight themselves ends up in a stressful situation, his performance—speed, power, coordination, endurance, self-control—rapidly tanks.

In contrast, a high performer relaxes when the going gets tough. His CNS gets inhibited, sharply reducing any trace bioelectrical activity in his muscles. As a result, the speed of muscular relaxation dramatically increases—by up to 70-80%!

These extended relaxation pauses give the muscles more time to rest and the blood vessels more time to deliver oxygen and to remove waste. The engine is purring, the plumbing is humming… Energy production demands plummet, manifesting in a decreased heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, lactate and stress hormones levels. The entire organism’s efficiency goes way up and its work capacity with it.

The second reaction, seen in athletic and military elite, is a manifestation of the relaxation mechanism of acute defense mobilization against extreme stimuli (RMAD) discovered by Prof. Vysochin.

You have heard another name for this phenomenon—the “second wind.”

Time to get RMAD!

Many people strongly manifest the “hyper” reaction, a minority (including most elite athletes) the relaxation reaction, with the rest somewhere in the middle.

The great news is, Russian scientists concluded that these adaptation types are not genetically predetermined and can be changed with training.

It takes a special combination of stimuli to trigger an acute relaxation reaction. Repeated enough times, the reaction becomes long term.

One of the most powerful stimuli for developing RMAD is hypoxia/hypercapnia: less oxygen and more carbon dioxide. There is a positive highly reliable correlation between an athlete’s hypoxia tolerance and the relaxation adaptive reaction. Moreover, improving the former promotes the latter.

Leading hypoxia researcher Prof. Felix Meerson stated: “…the wide complex of stable changes in neuroendocrine regulation has consequences that go far beyond an increase in tolerance to hypoxia…in healthy persons, adaptation to intermittent hypoxia should be used…first of all, for increasing resilience to expected or possible stressful situations, in particular, in such occupations as operator work associated with a shortage of time or work associated with a necessity of long-term self-control or overcoming fear.”

Hold your breath for resilience

But RMAD is not just about endurance and grace under pressure. The “second wind” is a generalized reaction that improves one’s resistance against all sorts of pathogens: heat, cold, blood loss, infections, toxins, radiation, and so on, and so forth.

According to Prof. Meerson, the broad “anti-fragility” effects of hypoxic training are largely due to cells’ greater resistance to free radical damage, as well as a reduced stress reaction.

One Russian scientist concluded that, “Hypoxia is…a universal general cause of adaptation.” RMAD makes one “anti-fragile.”

Breathe less, perform better

A study involving 170 women and 154 men, athletes of different levels (from low intermediate to advanced) and from a range of sports established a direct statistically significant correlation between the athlete’s performance and hypoxia tolerance:

Hypoxic training improves performance in many sports and in many ways.

The first way segues to the “anti-fragility” we just discussed. During periods of heavy stress cellular membranes get damaged and some of the enzymes that are supposed to remain inside leak out. In untrained people this also happens during intense exercise. This not only harms cells, but also prevents one from pushing hard. Hypoxic training reinforces cellular membranes and enables greater efforts with less wear and tear.

Second, when you put your body on an oxygen diet, it will learn to become frugal with it. Hypoxic training improves oxygen supply of tissues, oxygen utilization by cells, the aerobic metabolism. Hypoxia is “at least partially responsible for…increasing muscle mitochondrial and capillary density.” (The SECOND WIND express curriculum is a perfect fit with Strong Endurance™.)

Many studies done in the former USSR have demonstrated remarkable endurance breakthroughs delivered by hypoxic training, even in elite athletes. Following are just a few examples:

  • After 2 weeks members of the Russian navy rowing team showed the following improvements on the rowing ergometer: HR at all loads -7-10BPM, VO2max +11% (from 70.6 to 78.5ml/min/kg—an improvement that typically demands a year of hard training), power at the anaerobic threshold +30%, hemoglobin +12%, oxygen pulse +23%. The athletes reported deeper sleep and more rapid recovery from training.
  • After 3 weeks members of the Ukrainian women’s cycling team showed the following improvements: maximal veloergometer power +16.6%, VO2max +9.5%, average speed in a 20k race +5%.
  • After 3 weeks advanced to elite mid-distance runners, women and men, respectively, improved their VO2max by 8% and 5.5%, and their 800m times by 2.2% and 2.8%.
  • After 5 weeks advanced and elite soccer players showed the following improvements: times at various sprinting and long sprinting distances -6%, time to exhaustion on the veloergometer +4.6%, VO2max +6% (an improvement that typically demands a minimum of 9 months of hard training in similar subjects).

You may have noticed that endurance was not the only quality improved in the above experiments. Third, hypoxic training unexpectedly increases speed and power.

In one fascinating two-year study advanced sprinters acted as their own controls: they trained in a conventional manner in year one and added hypoxia without altering their training in year two. Whereas their 30m sprint from a low start and the 30m flying sprint both improved by 4% with conventional training, in a year of training with hypoxia the gains more than doubled—9%. The standing broad jump—a classic test of power—went up by 4% in a year of conventional training and by 15% in the year of training with hypoxia.

Several adaptations appear to be responsible for these speed and power “what the hell effects.” Among them are increased creatine phosphate storage in the muscles and possible conversion of type I muscle fibers to type IIA.

Multiple studies also found that hypoxically trained athletes can handle greater glycolytic loads—without an increase in blood lactate!

Breath holding is not for amateurs

Hypoxia can be induced by expensive or impractical means like high altitude and special devices—or simply by breath holding and voluntarily reduced breathing—hypoventilation.

But before you cut back on your breathing, you must understand that it has to be done right.

On one hand, there are all these remarkable performance benefits just mentioned (plus various therapeutic effects in a variety of conditions and diseases, including serious ones, that are not a part of the seminar).

On the other, “…any pathological state is directly or indirectly related to the…oxygen budget disturbance.”

The dose makes the poison. Consider that while properly timed exposure to moderately high altitude is favorable to health and performance, going too high and/or staying too long has opposite effects. Sherpas have a surprisingly low mitochondrial mass. After a two-month Himalayan expedition the concentration of products free radical damage in mountaineers’ muscles went up by 235%. The same applies to intermittent hypoxia at sea level—breath holds. The correct dosage is even more important than in strength training.

When it comes to volume, too many holds could be harmful—as seen in sleep apnea patients. Which is why Russian scientists have identified the optimal number—or rather a range of numbers—of “sets.”

The same is true of “intensity”—the degree of hypoxia, indirectly measured by oxygen saturation of the blood. Easy breath holds practiced in some schools, while beneficial in other ways, are useless for causing tissue hypoxia and the desired adaptations. On the other hand, extreme practices of competitive breath hold divers reach levels of hypoxia way below those recommended by Russian scientists. There is some scientific evidence that competitive breath breath-hold diving may lead to short-term memory impairment and, possibly, brain damage.

Incidentally, hyperventilation, used before breath holds by free divers and in some popular “deep breathing” schools comes with a laundry list of medical hazards…

In summary, hypoxic training must be done according to the standards established by specialists, not haphazardly (“I can hold my breath longer than you!”).

And even some professionally developed hypoventilation systems are not optimal for athletes. For instance, one respected methodology was developed by an MD for medical, rather than athletic, applications. A number of coaches have discovered that, for all its benefits, this popular system reduces the lung capacity, which is unacceptable for athletes.

The SECOND WIND express online course will exclusively teach you methods and techniques developed by Russian sports scientists specifically for athletes.

(To anticipate your question: No, we are not teaching the Buteyko method or Systema breathing.)

More powerful reasons to train your breathing

Thousands of years ago our ancestors realized that disciplined breathing yielded tremendous power over self. Breathing practices shrouded in mysticism were developed around the world. Some effective, some harmful, others worthless. More are still sprouting today, some useful, others pure psychobabble. In contrast, the breathing systems developed by Russian scientists are firmly rooted in physiology and thoroughly tested in the field.

The benefits of scientific breathing practice are many. Following is a short list, along with the techniques you will learn from the SECOND WIND express online course.

Take control of your “on-and-off” switch:

  • Activate your sympathetic (mobilize) or parasympathetic (relax and recover) nervous system by manipulating the length of inhalations, exhalations, and breath holds and some other breathing parameters.

Breathe skillfully during training and competition:

  • Discover how the breathing rhythm influences movement and vice versa—and how to make it work for you in sports ranging from bicycle racing to boxing. This is a game changer.
  • What breathing skill should you teach a beginner athlete after coaching him to breathe briefly and rhythmically?... This particular skill is an ace in the hole in all sports demanding endurance, from running to combat sports. Two groups of beginner women runners were tested on 800m. A week later they were retested. The experimental group that was taught this particular breathing skill improved their time by 13.5sec—while the control group by only 3sec.
  • Master a unique breathing technique that improves oxygen binding with hemoglobin.

    National and world class 800m and 1,500m runners were tested at different speeds on a treadmill. Then they were taught this technique and retested five days later. At the same speeds, the following parameters decreased by:
    • Respiration rate -30-35%
    • Minute respiration volume -10-20%
    • Blood lactate -25-50%
    • Heart rate -3-5%
    • Oxygen and pulse cost per meter -10-15%

    Equally impressive results were seen in long distance runners. For instance, the blood lactate was measured in an elite male marathoner (sub-2:10) running 12K at a given fast pace. He was taught the technique and retested a week later. His lactate went down from 9.4 to 3.65—almost three-fold.

    This technique that can be mastered in 3-4 days.

In addition to developing the breathing skills, an athlete who aims for the top must strengthen and condition his respiratory muscles. Because in metabolically demanding exercise they use up to 20-25% of the total oxygen consumption, training the diaphragm & Co. could make a difference between winning and not even placing.

Conditioning your breathing muscles has another, unexpected, benefit. Research has demonstrated that the rate of perceived shortness of breath very tightly correlates with the rate of perceived exertion—and that strengthening and conditioning the respiratory muscles reduces the RPE at the same work intensity. That means a greater output at the same effort.

  • Learn powerful techniques for strengthening your inspiration and expiration musculature.

It is not surprising that the forced vital capacity—the amount of air one can forcefully exhale after taking a deepest breath possible—is a parameter that is very important in sports demanding endurance. But did you know that the FVC is one of the best predictors of longevity?

  • Learn a state-of-the-art exercise that stretches the lungs and the rib cage while strengthening your respiratory muscles.

Feel awesome. Be awesome.

Always looking for the edge, for three quarters of a century Soviet and Russian sports scientists have studied, invented, and perfected numerous breathing methods to improve resilience and athletic performance.

Most of these techniques are simple to learn, require no special equipment, and can be incorporated into your regular training or done anywhere, anytime.

They work for all healthy people, from general fitness newbies to intermediate athletes to champions.

These low-tech/high concept methods, taught by Pavel in SECOND WIND express online course, deliver remarkable improvements in sports performance, resilience, and well-being:

  • Speed
  • Reaction time
  • Coordination
  • Endurance—without compromising power
  • Recovery
  • Resilience—physical and psychological
  • Athletic longevity

Feel awesome. Be awesome.