We take around 20,000 breaths per day but very few of us think about whether we are breathing properly. If you are an active person, you will take even more breaths per day. Even those who are in great shape can benefit, in all aspects of life, from learning proper breathing.
More specifically, as carbon dioxide (CO2) builds up in our body, receptors in our brain trigger the urge to breathe causing us to exhale out excess CO2 and inhale oxygen (O2). O2 is then transported into our lungs where it diffuses into the capillaries between the alveoli and is picked up by hemoglobin. The hemoglobin is transported to our heart and then to our muscles and organs. When the hemoglobin reaches the muscles, it comes into contact with a build-up of CO2. As a result, O2 is offloaded to the muscles and CO2 is transported back to the lungs to be exhaled. Without the necessary presence of CO2 in our tissues, the O2 can’t detach from the hemoglobin and will end up moving back to the lungs and exhaled. This process explains why it is irrelevant how much oxygen we take in. It is how our body utilizes the oxygen we take in that matters. Learning proper breathing will increase your body’s ability to use oxygen.
Adding a breath focus to your training does not have to change your current plan. With as little as five to ten minutes a day, you can begin to reap the benefits. If you are an endurance athlete, learning to breathe properly can: 1. increase your aerobic capacity; 2. improve your mechanics; 3. give you the mental edge; 4. improve your recovery.
1: Increasing your aerobic capacity
The first step in increasing your aerobic capacity is to improve your tolerance to CO2 with a focus on nasal breathing. Nasal breathing will filter and humidify the air and provide resistance to allow more O2 to be offloaded to the tissues due to the build-up of CO2. A higher CO2 tolerance results in more efficient use of oxygen in the body. Nasal breathing also releases nitric oxide which dilates the airways and capillaries allowing for an increase in oxygen uptake into the tissues.
Once you’ve mastered nasal breathing, you can add breath-hold (hypoxic) training, an advanced method to improve aerobic capacity. Studies in long-distance runners show that incorporating 2 hypoxic sessions per week for 6 weeks improves aerobic capacity as well as running economy. The findings also indicate intermediate to advanced athletes appear to gain the most. Similar studies were conducted on cyclists and swimmers showing positive benefits to hypoxic training.
2: Improving your mechanics
Nasal breathing activates your diaphragm. The diaphragm keeps our bodies moving properly. It attaches to the rib cage and spine and plays an essential part in stabilizing our spine. If you are not properly activating your diaphragm you are opening yourself up to spinal injuries and decreased mobility from compensations in the hips and thoracic spine. Learning proper breathing techniques keeps diaphragm active. While at some point in a competition you will need to switch to mouth breathing due to increased metabolic demands you will still be able to take a proper diaphragmatic breath. If on the other hand, you are mouth breathing into your upper-chest it a will shut-off the diaphragm. Not only will this impair your movement patterns but it will also put your mind and body in a more stressed state, taxing the secondary respiratory muscles.
3: Increased mental edge
Do you ever wonder why you want to quit well before you should during intense physical exercise? It is likely improper breathing mechanics taxing the secondary respiratory muscles. This sends signals to your brain that your body is expending too much energy and needs to slow down in order to survive. This is called the Central Governor Theory of Fatigue developed by Tim Noakes and popularized in Alex Hutchinsons’ book Endure.
As mentioned previously nasal breathing will keep the focus on your primary respiratory muscles and help keep your body in a more parasympathetic state, allowing your mind to stay calm. This prevents your brain from receiving a signal that it is time to stop or slow down and will provide you with an advantage when you need to kick it into gear and push your body to its limits.
4: Improving your recovery
Proper breathing helps reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body which can lead to cell and tissue damage. It is a natural process but can be exacerbated by too much exercise, especially long-distance events. This can lead to chronic inflammations which can cause injury, cardiovascular issues, and arthritis.
Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress and promote recovery by decreasing cortisol levels and increasing melatonin production.
Slow diaphragmatic breathing (5-7 breaths per minute), also increases heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a key indicator of the nervous system and recovery. If someone has a low HRV, they are stuck in sympathetic overdrive and the body cannot recover from physical activity. A high HRV is associated with lower stress and better recovery.
To Sum it Up
If you are looking to take your performance to the next level, an easy and simple tool is learning proper breathing, which includes the following steps:
1. Incorporate nasal inhales and nasal exhales in all of your warm-ups. Focus on breathing horizontally into your core to activate your diaphragm.
2. Once you get comfortable with step one, incorporate nasal breathing in all of your aerobic work. For example, if you go for a jog, see how long you can hold the nasal inhale/nasal exhale pattern. At first, you will have to slow your pace, but it becomes easier and your speed will increase at a lower heart rate, giving you more energy towards the end of a workout or race. When everyone else is ready to quit, this will be your time to shine and power into the finish line full speed ahead.
3. After your training sessions, take 3 minutes to kick start your recovery. Find a spot to lie down and begin to slow your breath in through the nose, out through the mouth. Start by inhaling for 3 seconds and exhaling for 6 seconds. If this is easy, you can extend it to a 4:8 ratio. After a few minutes, you will feel your body relaxing. If you’d like a guided recovery session, you can check out a 5- minute recording here.
Call to Action
If you are looking for more individualized help, please contact me through my website www.symmetry.live I create individualized breath programs for my clients to help them achieve their goals. We have created an Introduction to Breath program that will help you become more efficient using oxygen, better handle stress and improve your sleep. You can purchase it here.
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