Have you ever thought about how you breathe?
Probably not, unless at some point you couldn’t. For most the act of breathing happens pretty seamlessly, we don’t need to put any conscious effort into doing it. Imagine if we did?
Imagine how mentally exhausted we would be just from having to breath all day! Crazy!
Now take a minute and pay attention to your breath. What do you notice?
Is you chest expanding or your stomach expanding when you breathe?
Do you move any other parts of your body when you inhale or exhale?
How long does a single breath last?
Are you breathing through your mouth or your nose?
There is quite a lot happening when you breathe. How do you know if you are doing it right? Could your breathing be affecting your athletic performance?
Turns out your breathing plays an important role in your overall health and performance as an athlete. Many studies have found a positive association between pulmonary function (how well you breathe) and VO2 Max.
This makes sense, if you can’t efficiently get the oxygen needed by your muscles, your performance is not going to be as good as it could be. A good example of the importance of breathing while exercising is in people who suffer from exercise induced asthma. In these individuals, the strain of exercise can cause them to have an asmatic event in which they cannot breathe. This obviously puts an end to their exercise and will stop their performance in its track.
Outside of some type of medical condition like exercise induced asthma, how else can breathing affect your training?
We are meant to breathe using our diaphragms. Our diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle located below the lungs. When we breathe in it contracts, when we exhale our diaphragm expands helping expel air out.
Just like any other muscle in your body, if you don’t use your diaphragm it will start to become weaker. A weak diaphragm results in us taking short shallow breaths. In order to compensate for this unnatural breathing pattern, our posture begins to suffer and we develop a high-shouldered, chest-out, neck extended posture. This posture is strongly associated with people who suffer from emphysema, asthma and other respiratory problems. In addition poor posture can severely affect pulmonary function making it harder to breath. Again the harder it is to breath the more you have to work to get oxygen to the muscles. Not good if you are attempting to go all out in some type of athletic event.
Our posture not only affects the way way we breath but can also signal to our body that we are under additional stress, but lucky for us our breathing can also mitigate the stress response.
Stress is something that we are always trying to combat in today’s high paced, do it all, no days off society. Anything we can do to mitigate stress as an athlete is going to help up recover from our training and make gains in our performance. Taking deep diaphragmatic breaths has been shown to lower our stress hormones. Not only can deep breathing mitigate the effects of stress, but can also improve attention and focus. When an athlete is asked to give a peak performance, being able to tune out everything else in focus on the task at hand is critical.
Sleep also plays an important role in an athlete’s performance and recovery, in fact you can make an argument that is the MOST important component. If our sleep gets disrupted, our recovery is compromised, and without adequate recovery we can’t progress in our training. As athletes in today’s society, lots of things can disrupt our sleep, compromised breathing through is probably one of the worst.
Sleep apnea is a medical condition where you stop breathing momentarily while sleeping. Sleep apneas results in oxygen desaturation, increased sympathetic tone, and arousals, fragmenting sleep continuity and non-restorative sleep and daytime sleepiness. It is also associated with a variety of cardiovascular, metabolic, endocrant, and neurological conditions. This is bad news for your general health, and can severely impact you as an athlete from a health and recovery perspective.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing has also been shown to reduce oxidative stress levels in athletes post exercise. High levels of oxidative stress can result in damage to cells, proteins, and DNA and has been tied to diabetes, Alziehmer’s, and cancer. In one study, researchers had 16 male cyclists exercise for 8 hours straight and then split the group in half. Half of the riders were placed in a quiet space and did deep breathing exercises for an hour and the other half relaxed in a similar quiet space but did not do any deep breathing exercises. When researchers measured oxidative stress levels in the athletes of the deep breathing group they were significantly lower than the group that did not do the deep breathing exercises. Since there is no way of avoiding the oxidative stress caused by exercise itself it is important to do what we can as athletes to minimize its impact and deep breathing appears to be an easy intervention to do just that.
The way you breathe clearly plays an important role in your success as an athlete, both directly and indirectly through several lifestyle factors. Lifestyle is an important component of my Ancestral Athlete program and something I work with my athletes as soon as we start working together. I find myself incorporating breathing exercises into my athletes programs to help reduce stress. One of my favorite breathing techniques to use for this is called box breathing, it is simple and effective. Basically all you do is inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and repeat that for 5-10 cycles. It has a very calming effect on the body, that is backed up by research. Here is a simple YouTube video that you can use to follow along with.
Much of what causes improper breathing is due to the mismatch between our environment and what our body has evolved doing over 100s of thousands of years. In my Ancestral Athlete program and weekly newsletter I work to eliminate these mismatches in an effort to help athletes improve their performance in life and sport. Sign up for my newsletter to learn more about how to resolve these evolutionary mismatches and become an ancestral athlete yourself!
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