We spoke with breathwork experts Valentine Thomas and Nabil Ali to talk about how Jiu Jitsu players can use breathwork to improve their grappling performance. Both Valentine and Nabil are freedivers, spearfisherpeople, and train Jiu Jitsu themselves.
Valentine explained that the components of breathwork are the combination of utilizing breathing techniques and building the mental resilience to execute them. Most people, according to her, can hold their breath for approximately 4 minutes after minimal training – but the barrier to achieving that is simply a mental one.
Together with her Superhumans co-founder Nabil Ali, we discussed how to apply breathing techniques from freediving to increasing efficiency on the mats.
So just to start, could you introduce yourself in case someone reading this doesn’t know who you are and what you do?
Valentine Thomas: Yes, of course. So I am from Montreal, Canada where I trained as a lawyer. After school I moved to London where I worked at a hedge fund for about six years until I decided to quit everything and move to Florida to spearfish full time for a “job” (laughs).
So when you got into freediving and spearfishing – was that when you started getting interested in breathwork?
Valentine Thomas: Yes, most definitely. Actually that’s not entirely true, I started getting into breathwork when I was much younger around 18 when I started getting panic attacks. Breathwork was really the only thing that would calm me down when I was having a panic attack.
Oh wow. Could you talk about the breathing techniques you use to combat panic attacks?
Valentine Thomas: Yeah I can give you a technique called “Pursed Lips” that is very good for fighting anxiety, stress, or even just trying to calm down at the end of a long day. Take a normal breath through the nose, when you exhale, purse your lips and close your mouth so your teeth touch. Allow the exhale to lengthen. Usually we perform the inhale for 4 seconds and then exhale for 6 seconds or more.
So did that early introduction to focusing on your breathing have a noticeable effect on your performance as you got into breathwork reliant activities like freediving, spearfishing, Jiu Jitsu later on?
Valentine Thomas: Yes, but with Jiu Jitsu I’m still struggling to get my breathing correct since I am still very new at this. Everytime I go and train I get my ass kicked by someone who is way younger than me. I still need to think about it and be mindful of it when I’m on the mat.
Gotcha. So now at this point when you are doing the techniques for freediving are you able to just ratchet down your heart rate even with the intensity of the activity? I believe you mentioned in your most recent JRE appearance that you can burn anywhere from 1000-1300 calories. That’s a crazy amount of expenditure in an hour.
Valentine Thomas: Yes. It’s both physical and mental. A human being who is not even trained can easily hold their breath for four or five minutes but that’s the physical part of it. When you hold your breath you’re not exhaling any of the CO2 which means that accumulation of carbon dioxide is going to send a signal to your brain telling it to breathe ASAP. But it’s a bit of a trick, the signal doesn’t always mean you have run out of oxygen. You have to fight your body’s response to breathe with the knowledge you have more time. The mental side is all about mental resilience. You fight your body with your mind.
A lot of it has to do with recovery breathing. Being able to use recovery breathing to catch your breath and get a lot of oxygen in and a lot of CO2 out very quickly.
What does recovery breathing look like specifically for Jiu Jitsu?
Valentine Thomas: After a normal inhale through the nose, perform a hard and very fast exhale, trying to get as much air out as possible. The exhale should sound similar to making a “Puh” sound with your lips. Repeat that 3 times. It’s what I do for freediving and it crosses over really well.
By the way – my boyfriend who is my partner at Superhumans is with me right now and wants to say something if that’s okay?
Oh yeah of course.
Nabil Ali: Hi Connor. You see it all the time especially with beginners – people huffing and puffing or worse holding their breath in bad positions. That pattern of rapid breathing leads to increased sympathetic nervous system activity and just pushes them deeper into a state of “Flight or Fight”.
Valentine Thomas: In general, try and breathe through your nose as much as you can. You’re then forced to breathe slowly. You notice when you roll with really good guys or girls that they are barely breathing – even in a more intense roll.
Nabil Ali: Valentine taught me that recovery technique and I use it all the time in both Jiu Jitsu and boxing. Do it three times and then bring your breathing back to normal. Breathing with your nose and your diaphragmatic breathing – you’ll just recover so much quicker.
So should you try to hold your “at rest” breathing cadence while training? Just breathing normally and then trying to keep that pattern into a roll?
Valentine Thomas: Yes definitely. I think it all comes down to just sticking with breathing through your nose and not your mouth. Before really discovering all of this I was mouth breathing all the time and it’s just terrible for you for so many reasons. But now, when I am doing Jiu Jitsu I just focus a lot on keeping all my breathing through my nose so I can control my heart rate.
Could you apply that breathing pattern for anxiety you mentioned earlier in the lead up to a tournament match?
Nabil Ali: Well, when someone is anxious the main focus is to slow down their breathing. You want to head it off before it gets out of control and becomes a full fledged panic. In competition it’s not necessarily an anxiety attack – you’re just full of nerves. I would recommend doing something like box breathing. Box breathing was made really popular by the Navy SEALs. It’s been around for a long time but they have definitely made it famous.
Box breathing is simply, inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds and hold for 4 seconds. You can do it for 5, I do it for 5, but for someone who is just starting out they should do it for 4. The reason I would say to use this over “Pursed Lips” in this situation is because of how you have to count. The counting adds an extra element of focus. It narrows down your thought process, allows you to focus, and then to physically calm down as well.
Okay cool. I haven’t heard of that but I’ll definitely try and incorporate that next time I compete. I think another aspect of recovery and breathing we haven’t discussed is sleep. It’s something I think a lot of people who train need to consider more. A lot of people I know for instance, always end up training at night and it definitely impacts their sleep quality. Do you have a technique you can share to try and mitigate some of that?
Nabil Ali: Usually when people have a hard time sleeping it’s a combination of factors, overstimulated mentally and physically, over stressed. You could be physically exhausted but if you have a lot bouncing around in your head it will switch back on your ‘fight or flight’ side to the nervous system and your body will be totally out of whack, which is why people can be exhausted but still have problems sleeping.
To give a short version/tips for anyone reading this, you need to focus on two things, lowering the heart rate and narrowing your thought process, extending your exhales to double or more in length to your inhale will slowly reduce your heart rate, including a simple body scan after this (focusing on different sensations within the body) will help calm racing thoughts, combining these together will certainly help prep the body for sleeps.
We created a system in our Superhumans platform called “SuperSleep Method” which has a 4 step method I worked on for years that always works for me no matter what and has me asleep in less than 10 minutes, you can sign up for free and try it for yourself.
Tell me more about your company Superhumans. What inspired you to start it?
Valentine Thomas: I was spearfishing and freediving as well as dealing with my anxiety. And actually Nabil has suffered from insomnia for a long time as well. And we both found that breathwork was the only thing that really made a difference.
Nabil Ali: I never did anything past using it to help me finally sleep. In my mid 20’s I started having sleep issues. It took me a long time to fall asleep and stay asleep, I tried everything from over the counter to prescription medication, which are short term solutions but you can’t rely on those. I read about how you can change what side of the nervous system you are in depending on how you breath, it worked and I became obsessed.I thought it was super interesting and I read a lot of books on it and I became so fascinated. I was doing a lot of coaching and I incorporated breathwork into some of the seminars and workshops I was running and then I ran into Valentine in London three years ago. I had done freediving as well at that point and it really was just a meeting of very similar minds. We knew immediately we wanted to do something like this, like Superhumans.
Valentine Thomas: We built out workshops and started giving free classes online about breathwork during the pandemic. The classes filled up very quickly and now that the pandemic seems to be slowing down we’ve been able to start it up as an actual business.
Nabil Ali: We built out a platform to create different courses with different techniques to achieve the goals of those courses. We have SuperCalm (anti-anxiety), SuperSleep (focusing on sleep), SuperHold (comprehensive course on breath holds), and then SuperBoost (athletic performance).
In lot of other courses out there are a bit yoga focused which can be great but for some people it can be a bit too “woo-woo”. The other end of the spectrum is super scientific and maybe a bit unapproachable. We’ve tried to find that spot in the middle to make it as easy as possible for people to understand simple techniques that can make a difference in their lives.
If someone has read all of this and never heard of breathwork previously, what do you want them to walk away with to try and incorporate in their Jiu Jitsu?
Valentine Thomas: If you are new to breathwork keep it super simple and for your first step just breathe through your nose. At all times. Extremely stressful activity like sprinting is different but any activity level below that try to keep it through the nose. Seven breaths per minute.
Nabil Ali: The other thing I would say to focus on is to make sure your breathing is diaphragmatic. Breathe with your diaphragm through the belly instead of your chest.