What is one activity you and everyone else does all day long whether you think about it or not? This single activity you perform about 26,000 times per day. It affects the efficiency and efficacy of every single system in your body. This sounds pretty important, but what is it? Why don’t I think about it if it can make such a difference? What happens if you do it wrong? What is this activity? TELL ME ALREADY!!!
The activity is Breathing.
Everybody knows how to breathe, right? WRONG. In order to understand why breathing is so vital to our performance and recovery, we need a bit of background information about what happens when we breathe.
One important thing that happens when we breathe is that we change the state of our nervous system. Nerves, really? Yes. Imagine this scenario. You are walking through the woods, you hear a stick break on the trail behind you, you turn around and see a bear! What is the first thing you are likely to do? Most people will take a gasping breath through their mouth, filling their upper chest with air. (before wetting themselves or running away)
Seeing the bear elicits an immediate Fight or Flight response. Our fight or flight response is directly caused by our nervous system. It is a necessary tool for escaping danger, but it essentially shuts down our recovery systems and is linked with stress hormones, changes in blood pressure, heart rate, metabolism, and a ton of other negative factors for our immediate situation as well as our long term health. Chronic fight or flight stimulation (sympathetic nervous system) is not meant to be regular or sustained.
So, our breathing is linked with stress on our body and the stressful fight or flight response. The breaths we take in a fight or flight state are short, shallow, and through our mouth. How do you breathe when you train?
When we breathe, the air enters our lungs, mixes around in the network of capillaries surrounding air sacs in our lungs called alveoli, and that air imparts its oxygen into our blood. Now, our Fight or Flight breath took place up in our chest. If gravity is pulling on my body and all its contents, which part of my lungs do you think we will find the most blood in need of oxygen? The bottom 1/3. If I have more blood in the bottom of my lungs, shouldn’t I try to breathe into that portion of my lungs to get the most benefit from each breath? Yes you should; and it just so happens that our nervous system plays a role here too.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from our Fight or Flight chest breath through our mouth, we have our Rest and Digest breath through our nose, moving our diaphragm down causing our belly to expand as the bottom part of our lungs fills with air. If you are not familiar with the diaphragm, watch this video:
When we breathe deeply, using our diaphragm to completely fill our lungs, we stimulate the opposite of Fight or Flight: Rest and Digest. Blood pressure improves, oxidative stress is reduced, blood is more oxygenated (what fuel source in the body is the only one dependent on oxygen for its metabolism? Oh, that’s right… FAT.), more carbon dioxide waste is removed from our body, our internal organs are stimulated, and our mental state of awareness, focus, and calm are improved. Interestingly, breathing through your mouth also affects the development of your facial and jaw structure and your overall spinal alignment and head positioning:
Our breathing plays a key role determining in which state our body remains: fight or flight vs. rest and digest. When external factors like physical stress or even emotional stress cause our body to want to go into fight or flight mode, our respiratory system responds by shortening our breaths, breathing through the chest, and breathing through the mouth. However, when we are already in this stressed state, or we know stress is coming, we can change our breathing pattern to help maintain or bring ourselves back to rest and digest mode. We should strive to keep ourselves in Rest and Digest mode through our breathing! Simply put, our body is not meant to sustain the Fight or Flight state, so breathe deeply!
Here is a graphic to illustrate the effects of poor breathing on our body (feel free to think of poor breathing as STRESS):
When we train, we are stressing our body. Are we supporting it by giving it the right input to abate the cost of stress and to accelerate the process of recovery? By and large, NO. Don’t fear! I am not saying we all need to tape our mouths shut! However, as many of your 26,000 breaths each day should be oriented toward maintaining the dominance of the Rest and Digest system (parasympathetic nervous system). When this system is dominant, we are recovering, adapting, growing, and enhancing our health. Breathing through the nose simply warms, filters, and moisturizes the air on the way in, and regulates the rate of the air going out. It also provides a better path to move air into the lower portions of the lungs. Think of each breath as the opportunity to recover from and prepare for your best performance.
Breathe through your nose as much, as slowly, and as deliberately as possible during your next workout. This may take some adjusting, but as you continue to try, you will feel the results tangibly and will be compelled to send me a thank you email!
- Inhale through your nose, filling your belly slowly and completely. The shoulders should not rise, and the belly should inflate like a basketball. (this part should take about 4 seconds)
- Pause briefly
- Exhale slowly and completely by pressing the air out with your diaphragm. The sternum should elevate and the belly button should draw close to the spine. (this part should take about 8 seconds)
- Pause briefly
- Repeat if you want to live!
Note: If it is difficult for you to inhale for 4 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds, you need to keep practicing! Your body has been conditioned to breathe shallow
Enhance your health and performance by learning the basics, step one: Breathe! Stay tuned for Step 2 and other golden nuggets of information!
Visual demonstration of the difference between chest and diaphragm breathing: