Yawning—such an odd physiological phenomenon. Humans yawn, and so do dogs, monkeys, birds, and just about every known vertebrate species other than giraffes (yes, that is also odd).
Over a decade ago, at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, yawning became a prominent sidebar story. Speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, the most decorated American Winter Olympic athlete of all time, unleashed a pre-race routine that included, of all things, robust yawning.
At the time, watching Ohno let loose with a series of jaw-droppers, just seconds before one of the biggest moments of his life, not only triggered my own yawn song but also made me wonder: Why do we yawn? Obviously, people and other animals yawn when they are tired; we all know that. But there must be more to it—there must be a biological purpose beyond letting chatty dinner guests know that they’ve overstayed their welcome.
Let’s consider three possible functions, and the likelihood of each:
First, Apolo Ohno believes that it improves athletic performance. Ohno once told Yahoo Sports that yawning makes him feel better, that it “gets the oxygen in and the nerves out.”
That sounds good, and I hate to contradict an eight-time Olympic medalist, but it’s not completely true. Yawning, as far as we know, does not improve overall oxygen levels.
Tyler Huston is a nurse, paramedic, and breathing specialist based in British Columbia who practices and teaches breath control therapy for rehabilitation from physical and/or psychological injury as well as for optimizing athletic performance. He is not a big fan of yawning in the context of competition, although he told me that it might have a very specific value for an athlete like Ohno.
Apolo Ohno suffered for years from exercise-induced asthma, like so many of the high-performance athletes that I train do. As a part of his treatment plan and the self-care balance of his mental health and physical performance, Apolo implemented breathing and breathwork training into his daily routine.
There is a level of CO2 (carbon dioxide) offloading that is beneficial directly before an event—but that level can be achieved with three large respiratory cycles. Anything more than this I see as only working against you in both sprint or endurance events.
Second, based on brain-scan studies, yawning increases the activity of a small area of the brain called the precuneus, which plays an important role in spatial orientation, memory, and consciousness. So, perhaps it helps with focus and attention.
Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist and author of multiple books on the topic, including Brain Weaver and How God Changes Your Brain, thinks so. He has encouraged yawning—even when not tired.
Sound impossible? It’s not; just fake a half dozen yawns and the real thing will awaken within you. Newberg’s advice is simple: “Yawn as many times a day as possible; when you wake up, when you’re confronting a difficult problem at work, when you prepare to go to sleep, and whenever you feel anger, anxiety, or stress.”