“Winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing.”.
– George Steinbrenner
We live in a stressful world. Daily life is exhausting. We get so consumed in our day-to-day, that too often we forget about our sleep and our health.
But here’s the thing.
A better sleep will help you maintain a healthy weight, help you make better decisions, reduce your stress and improve your focus.
Militaries all around the world have developed various techniques to optimise both sleep and performance through the power of controlled breathing.
If you’re looking to improve the quality of your sleep and your overall performance levels, then you’ve come to the right place.
Below, we’ll look at seven breathing techniques you can use everyday to improve your sleep and performance, used by some of the world’s most powerful militaries renown for their rigorous training and demanding lifestyle.
Why sleep is your most powerful weapon
In military training, sleep is often referred to as a soldier’s most powerful weapon.
Quality sleep is linked to physical recovery, cognitive function, emotional well-being and overall resilience.
Lack of sleep (or poor quality sleep) – by contrast – can impair decision-making, increase stress levels and compromise the immune system.
Recognising the importance of sleep, the military has honed in on various breathing techniques to not only facilitate better sleep but also to prepare individuals for peak performance during waking hours.
Here are the top 7 military breathing techniques for sleep and performance
These seven techniques are like your new go-to friendly guide to help you sleep better and stay focused when things get hectic.
1. Deep breathing
One of the simplest yet highly effective military breathing techniques is deep breathing.
This involves taking slow, deliberate breaths, filling your lungs completely with each inhale and exhaling fully.
Deep breathing activates the body’s relaxation response, reducing stress and promoting a sense of calm.
A 2017 study published in Neurological Sciences, after looking at heart rate and salivary cortisol levels, found that deep breathing can induce an improvement in mood and a reduction in stress.
This technique is particularly useful before bedtime to help transition from the busyness of the day to a more restful state.
2. Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a technique that involves tensing and then gradually relaxing different muscle groups.
You’ll typically execute this technique by contracting each of your muscles one by one (either “bottom up” or “top down”) to create tension and release to create relaxation.
This method promotes physical relaxation, helping to release tension and prepare the body for sleep and improve your overall performance.
Visualisation is a powerful mental tool that the military often incorporates into training. It involves focusing on calming images and thoughts in your mind to take yourself into a calming place.
You can think about an event that relaxes you, a person who calms you or a goal you’d like to achieve. Hold that thought in your mind as you focus on your breathing.
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that visualisation can help you rid your mind of bad thoughts, alleviate your stress and assist you fall asleep quicker.
“Just concentrate on this picture and keep foreign thoughts out, particularly thoughts with any movement or motion involved. Hold this picture and enjoy it for 10 seconds. … When you have a fully relaxed body and a mind that’s still for 10-plus seconds, you will fall asleep, period.”
- Lloyd “Bud” Winter, track and field coach who trained U.S. Navy pilots
Indeed, creating a mental sanctuary and engaging all the senses in this imagery can distract the mind from stressors, making it an excellent technique for improving both sleep and performance.
Biofeedback is a technique that involves monitoring your physiological functions such as heart rate, muscle tension, and skin temperature and then using that information to gain control over normally involuntary bodily processes.
Basically, it involves controlling your own bodily functions that you can’t normally control.
While biofeedback may require specialised equipment, you can buy some to keep in your home.
A 2012 article published in PLOS One studied the condition of 41 soldiers who were exposed to biofeedback training when immersed in a horror/first-person shooter game. The study concluded that biofeedback-assisted stress management training helped alleviate their stress.
Indeed, by using biofeedback tools, you can learn to regulate your physiological responses, leading to improved stress management and enhanced sleep quality.
5. 4-7-8 breathing technique
Developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, the 4-7-8 breathing technique is a simple yet potent method for inducing relaxation.
Derived from an ancient yoga practice, the technique requires you to:
· inhale through your nose for a count of four,
· hold your breath for a count of seven, and
· exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of eight.
This pattern helps regulate the breath, increase oxygen intake and trigger the body’s relaxation response.
Practising the 4-7-8 technique can be a quick and effective way to calm the nervous system before bedtime or during stressful situations. A 2022 study in Physiological Reports found that this breathing technique can help improve blood pressure and heart rate variability.
6. Box breathing
Box breathing, also known as square breathing, is a method used by U.S. Navy SEALs to enhance focus and manage stress.
“Box breathing is a technique that helps you take control of your automatic breathing patterns to train your breath for optimal health and performance. It combines the practice of optimal breathing with para-sympathetic activation, concentration and mindfulness training”.
– Mark Divine, former U.S. Navy SEALs Commander
NYT bestselling author of The Way of the SEAL
It gets its name from the need to picture a box with equal sides, and requires to:
· Inhale for a count of four seconds,
· Hold your breath for four seconds,
· Exhale for four seconds, and
· Hold your breath again for four seconds.
Box breathing is done through the nostrils, helping you draw the air into your lungs, slowing down your breathing rhythm and exercising the vagal nerve (the nerve that runs right through your central nervous system and affects things like your heart rate and digestion).
Box breathing is versatile and can be employed anytime, anywhere, making it a valuable tool for improving both sleep and performance.
7. Nasal breathing
Nasal breathing is a more general and fundamental technique that involves breathing through the nose instead of the mouth.
According to Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL writing on Military.com:
For performance breathing, you should inhale and exhale through your nose. You may need to inhale through the nose but exhale out the mouth to speed the process as you first get started.
Breathing through the nose offers a range of benefits including:
· Reducing your risk of sleep apnea
· Reducing your chances of snoring
· Helping your lose weight while sleeping (removing fat-soluble toxins)
· Reduces your stress (increasing production of nitric oxide in your paranasal sinuses soothes your heart)
Nasal breathing can be incorporated into daily life, whether during exercise, work, or relaxation, contributing to better sleep and heightened performance by maintaining a balanced nervous system.
The lowdown on military breathing techniques
Life is hectic – but, by breathing correctly, you can make it so much easier for yourself.
The seven military breathing techniques we’ve highlighted in this article, when executed right, can afford you both a restful night’s sleep and enhanced performance in your workouts and in everyday life.
But we get it – sometimes you can’t do it alone.
It may take a little time and patience for you to completely master, but your body will thank you greatly for it.
If you’d like some professional coaching to help you master it correctly, we recommend starting with these awesome Breathwork Training Courses and Breathwork Masterclasses that ex-Navy Seal David Goggins himself has used.