The third article in a series by Robin McNelis looks at how to prevent bad breathing and manage the triggers

We all know that prevention is better than cure, so triggers that can cause you to breathe incorrectly may need to be addressed before you can work effectively with the normal breathing pattern.

Normally, there is more than one factor that makes people lose control of their breathing – it’s just that often there is one thing that tips someone over the edge to produce noticeable symptoms. Although there are thousands of documented triggers, they basically fall into three main categories, namely: physical, emotional and thought processes.


This includes many different sub-categories such as environmental conditions, foods, allergens, medications, pain, body temperature and many medical conditions.

In my clinic, there are two that I commonly see that are applicable to athletes and these are an overuse of caffeine and exposure to altitude (either on mountains or aircraft).

Females are more exposed to trigger factors due to their fluctuating hormone levels that can destabilise breathing. This is particularly true during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle, through the course of pregnancy and when going through the menopause. During these times it is more important to try to manage your other triggers – even better to reduce the chances of having troublesome symptoms.


We are all exposed to various emotions in daily life and these can destabilise our breathing depending on how we manage them.

Stress, anxiety, excitement, anticipation, frustration and sometimes low mood (or even depression) all come into play for most of us at some time, but levels are sometimes increased due to important events. Although many of these emotions are normal and indeed necessary, they can produce excessive amounts of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which can push us to breathe too much or with too much tension in our shoulders.

How we interpret these feelings can influence how our bodies react and how we perform. For example, adrenaline pumping before an important event is normal. If you see this as anxiety or fear (a negative thing), you are more likely to lose control. However, if you think of it more positively as necessary anticipation in preparation for the challenge, you are more likely to be able to keep calm and use these hormones in a controlled way to your advantage.

Hyperventilation diagram

Thought processes

Since the development of the internet, many of us seem keen to self-diagnose what is wrong with us by putting pieces of information together and coming up with what sounds like a feasible explanation, which may or may not be accurate. This can often lead to people thinking that they have a condition that they haven’t or more worryingly, people dismissing serious symptoms as something trivial.

Hyperventilation and breathing pattern dysfunction share many symptoms with both serious and trivial conditions, so if in doubt, contact your doctor.

The information someone has discovered may change the way that they think about what is going on with their bodies, possibly causing emotional and physical reactions which change the way that they breathe.

Over the years, I have also heard many misconceptions about breathing and many of these beliefs can damage performance rather than improve it. One such example was of people deliberately over-breathing in the early stages of a marathon to “hyper-oxygenate and store up extra oxygen for the end of the race”. This theory is incorrect and would potentially lead to a very poor marathon due to the person’s inaccurate thoughts and beliefs influencing their behaviour.

Over the next week, think of which of these triggers may affect you and your breathing. If you find any, think if they can be eliminated, modified or managed differently to reduce the impact they have on you and your performance. In the final article in this series about breathing in exercise, I look at the techniques that can be used to strengthen your breathing and performance.

Potential triggers to bad breathing

– Food: sugary food, too long without food, allergies, intolerances
– Drinks: caffeinated drinks, alcohol, excessively low or high fluid intake
– Drugs: various prescribed medications, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol
– Temperature: environmental conditions and core body temperature
– Atmospheric conditions: pollutants, allergens, levels of humidity, altitude
– Medical conditions: asthma, COPD, heart disease, anaemia, pneumonia, thyroid disturbances
– Pain
– Changes in hormone levels
– Emotions: anxiety, depression, fear, frustration, guilt, rage, anger
– Personality type

» First article in the series: Correct breathing for athletes

» Second article in the series: Good and bad breathing in athletics

» Next article in the series: Improving breathing

» Robin McNelis is a chartered physiotherapist specialising in cardiac and respiratory physiotherapy at Wellington Hospital in London. He is a qualified athletics coach and runs his own health, fitness and wellbeing consultancy, Run Robin Run. See or email [email protected]