Being able to breathe in a fight, is a core combat skill, however in many reality-based self-defense systems, there is a focus on “natural breathing” – an idea that suggests that we should let our body take over the breathing for us, and not to consciously regulate our breathing cycle(s). There’s a logic to this; why should any of our focus be taken away from blocking, striking, punching, etc. to do something that our body can do for us already? Better to concentrate on delivering concussive force to our aggressor than spend time regulating and managing our breathing. After all, most real-life confrontations only last a few seconds, so although we may finish the fight exhausted and out of breath, we’ll have time to recover, and get ourselves back to a steady state.
I used to think like this, however one night, many, many years ago when I was doing door work changed this. Anyone who has worked bar or club security, in a low-end, cheap drinks, pack-them-to-the-rafters establishment, will have experienced nights where you have to break up fight after fight, after fight – and deal with mini-riots, both inside and outside of the club. There are times when the mix of individuals, and the collective group dynamics, bring out the worst in everybody. It’s stressful both emotionally – as you’re in an almost constantly adrenalized/switched-on state – and physically. What allows you to manage both your physical and emotional states in these types of situations, is your breathing.
To prepare for competitive Judo, my school used to have us fight for 15 minutes straight, against fresh opponents. A Judo bout lasts five minutes, and in preliminary rounds, you would normally fight three bouts at a time; theoretically with rest in between – I say theoretically, because if the next fight after yours ended almost immediately because one fighter got thrown on their back (scoring Ippon and ending the contest), you could get called back up to fight again, with no actual rest period.
This is why we trained to be able to continuously fight for 15-minutes i.e. if your fight goes the full duration, the next fight ends straight away, you get called back to fight again, which lasts the full duration, and then the same thing happens again. 15 minutes is a long time, and the only way to be able to keep performing, regardless of your fitness level, is to manage your breathing. This worst-case scenario of having to fight three bouts back-to-back rarely happened, but sometimes it did. Nights working the door were usually relatively calm, but sometimes they weren’t, and sometimes they were crazy. Most fights are over in a few seconds, but sometimes they’re not. To neglect training to breathe properly is to overlook the possibility that a fight may be prolonged, and may go beyond 10 or 15 seconds.
A real-life fight has different phases, and it is necessary to know how to breathe in each. When you first recognize the threat/danger of the situation you are in, and become adrenalized, you are going to need to know how to calm yourself down, and not be overwhelmed by the cocktail of hormones that your fear system has just released into your bloodstream. This is where Tactical Breathing comes in. This sees you deeply inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, and then release it for a count of four. Without going into the complete physiology of how this works, when we take a deep breath, another set of calming/relaxing cocktails get released into our bloodstream, that counteract some of the effects of becoming adrenalized.
If you think of adrenaline as being like the gas pedal/accelerator in your car (with somebody else applying the pressure, that you can’t control), and your Tactical Breathing being like the brake pedal (which you can control), your only way you regulate the speed you are going at, is to apply the brakes. By using your breathing, you can stop yourself from being completely controlled by your adrenal response to the danger. You don’t want to lose the complete effect of being adrenalized, because if the confrontation does turn physical, the extra strength and power the adrenaline will provide you, along with the ability to endure more pain, will be needed.
At the start of the physical confrontation, when you are looking to end the fight quickly by delivering as much concussive force and damage against your aggressor as possible, you will need to use fast breathing. When we breathe slowly, we breathe in, and then we breathe out, both parts taking about the same time i.e. our breathing rhythm is “regular”. Many people when they try to “fast breathe”, simply try to replicate this pattern, but just do it faster. The result is that they hyperventilate to some degree, and thus end up exhausting themselves.
When you breathe fast, you are not trying to shorten the overall breathing cycle, but instead you are attempting to speed up the exhalation part of the process. The way you do this is to breathe out, not in one continuous breath, but in a series of fast, short bursts, that you time with your strikes. You will often hear/see boxers do this, when they throw a combination e.g. they take a breath, and then exhale on the jab, the cross, the hook and the uppercut – one inhalation, results in four fast exhalations. By breathing this way, you will be able to stay oxygenated, whilst working at a fast pace and rate – something you will want to be able to do, in order to end the confrontation as quickly as possible.
Slow breathing has its place. It’s basically recovery and preparatory breathing. In a prolonged fight, there are times and places where you may have to slow down your work-rate somewhat, and “manage” the fight. In a real-life confrontation, these may be the times you re-position your attacker, so that you can see what is going on in the environment – a fight is not just about you and the other person, it is about everything that in happening around you. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you stop striking, in these moments e.g. you may have ended up in a clinch with someone, and then moved out to a control position, where you can turn your aggressor around – whilst throwing knee strikes – so you are able to see everything that has developed since your eye-line was restricted in the clinch.
This is a “slower” part of the fight, than the initial onslaught of strikes that you assaulted your assailant with, where you were using a fast breathing pattern. Slow, regular breathing doesn’t mean that you’re not fighting, it just means that you’re in a phase of the fight, that is less dynamic – your goal is to quickly move through this phase, to one which sees you operating in a much more active and forceful manner.
By managing your breathing in these different ways, you will be able to remain oxygenated, and provide your muscles with the energy they require, without overwhelming them. More importantly, you will keep your brain oxygenated so that you will able to interpret and process information, formulate tactics and strategies, make effective decisions and action plans, etc. If your brain and your body are exhausted, all of your techniques, skills, and training become virtually worthless. In real-life confrontations, people are rarely unable to continue physically fighting due to a lack of fitness, but rather, this is a symptom of poor and inefficient breathing.