Last night, spectators held their breath waiting to see Lindsey Vonn's last downhill skiing run in PyeongChang, and possibly the last run in her Olympic career. Meanwhile at the starting gate, Vonn was breathing, like, a lot. For about a minute, you could hear Vonn taking forceful, staccato breaths repeatedly, and making a "whoosh"-ing noise as she exhaled through pursed lips.
People on Twitter were confused. "Gonna take a hard pass on listening to several seconds of isolated audio of Lindsey Vonn's weird pre-race shoosh breathing," one person tweeted. Others said the sound was "stressing them out" and "obnoxious." Heck, even I tweeted hoping someone would know what was going on. (Sadly, the video of Vonn's run starts right after her intense breathing, so you'll have to trust me and Twitter on this one.)
Vonn has yet to explain her methods, although yesterday she did tell USA Today, "I love being in the starting gate with so much pressure you feel suffocated." So, perhaps it was a way to calm her nerves before the stressful run, or maybe it was just a way to deal with the high altitude.
The downhill skiing course at PyeongChang starts at around 4,183 feet above sea level, so we can assume that the air is much thinner and the altitude is intense. When you're at a higher altitude, there's significantly less air pressure than if you were at sea level, so your lungs have to work harder and you may feel out of breath. And if you're exercising, then it's even more difficult to breathe.
For many high-altitude athletes, including climbers, hikers, and mountain bikers, breathing techniques like this are a must, because they allow you to get oxygenated blood to your muscles, according to Ian Taylor, a mountain climber and trek leader in Colorado. "When there's a lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, to be able to force oxygen where it's needed is critical for the muscle to perform at its highest capacity," Taylor says.
Vonn may have been doing what's referred to as "pressure breathing." To do it, you take a full belly breath (meaning your stomach and diaphragm expand as you inhale), then exhale forcefully. By filling your lungs to full capacity, it forces oxygen into your body and blood stream, so your muscles can do their job better, he says.
Skiing is a sport that requires a lot of muscular effort, especially from your quads, Taylor says. "Your quads are under so much pressure; they're being squeezed themselves, and the muscle is being squeezed from a lack of oxygen [in the atmosphere]," he says. Also, downhill skiing runs last a matter of seconds, so skiers may not have time to breathe while going between 60 and 70 miles per hour. Pressure breathing right before the run may have helped Vonn get "ready to go," Taylor says.
Who knows? Maybe Vonn was just experimenting with some yogic breathing techniques or trying to quell her anxiety before the competition. Either way, it paid off because Vonn took home a bronze medal — so we can all exhale now.