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  • Mary Brooking

Breathing: it impacts health, wellness and performance


Many of us take for granted the power that breath has; each inhale and exhale can help power, regulate, recover & restore your body.



How can I be breathing wrong? This viewpoint is often found in endurance athletes who breathe a lot, and breathe deeply Optimal or functional breathing at rest or low intensity exercise is slow, light, through the nose deep into the diaphragm and involves both the ribcage expanding and the diaphragm moving down on ever inhale. If you don’t use your nose during low intensity workouts, or while at rest or asleep then you are drawing a lot of cold, dry air and pathogens directly into your lungs via the mouth, which can lead to respiratory diseases; coughs and colds. Breathing through your nose until you get to the threshold of oxygen requirement above which the mouth needs to be used in addition to the nose can bring huge performance, health and wellbeing benefits: - Biomechanical: Improving movement control & efficiency and helping with posture and stabilisation of the spine - Biochemical: Dilating upper and lower airways, improving blood circulation and oxygen delivery to cells - Psychosocial: Changing nervous system activation; improving recovery, sleep, focus and concentration

Biomechanical: The diaphragm is large, flat muscle at the base of ribcage, that separates the ribcage from the abdominal cavity. It is not only a key part of our breathing mechanics but is also part of our core muscle system and contributes to postural stability and core control. If we don’t breathe slowly and with control over diaphragm this often leads to lack of control over our core and trunk, resulting in movement instability. Activating our diaphragms, together with a stable, strong core, means back pain can be reduced and power can be transferred to the legs more efficiently, helping performance in cycling, running and many other sports. Cyclists spend a lot of time in flexion which can mean its hard to breathe deep into the diaphragm, so this is particularly important for them to work on. Biochemical: Oxygen plays a vital role in performance. Is oxygen being bound in the blood or is it being released? At the lungs we want haemoglobin to grab onto oxygen very easily, to pick it up to then deliver it to the rest of the body. At the destination, e.g. muscle cells, we want the environment to be such where the oxygen molecule is encouraged to leave the haemoglobin and go into the place where its needed. This oxygen release increases in the presence of higher blood carbon dioxide, so helping with the diffusion of oxygen to cells. Mouth breathing decreases blood carbon dioxide levels so increases the extent to which oxygen bonds to haemoglobin and reduces it being released to muscle cells. Nasal breathing also stimulates a chemo receptor in the nasal passages that results in the production of nitric oxide, a dilator of the airways and blood vessels, also meaning more red blood cells are delivered to muscle cells. Changing how we breathe really can have an effect on oxygen availability to muscles and therefore performance. The primary trigger to breathe is the build up of carbon dioxide in the body so increasing your tolerance to this CO2 then means you can you can use your nose to breathe for longer, and experience all the benefits of that before switching to mouth breathing.

Psychosocial: Our thoughts influence our breathing and our breathing influences our thoughts. The normal response to a stressful situation is to switch to more mouth breathing and also to push our nervous system into a sympathetic (fight or flight) state. Many people live in a world of almost constant stress, especially when athletic training, which is often a stressor, is laid onto daily life, and are also in a chronic state of over breathing or mouth breathing, which reinforces the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. Slow, nasal breathing (6 breaths a minute) consciously for 5 or 10 minutes can activate the vagus nerve which stimulates the parasympathetic (rest & digest) nervous system. This can help with recovery and relaxation, critical for performance, and can positively impact physiological state. Initially breath work can be a stressor but if you take the time to train the link between breathing and engagement of vagus nerve it can be very impactful, and very simple. Breathwork: Start to be more aware of how you breathe. Rates of 12-18 breaths per minute are common. A simple test to assess your own breathing level is the Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT) score. Take a normal breath in through the nose, then a normal breath out, hold on the exhale and measure the time until reach first point of air hunger where you feel the desire to breath. Note: this is not how long you can hold your breathe. Below 20-25 seconds is extremely common, including in athletes but should be aiming to get towards 40 seconds. Some breath work exercises are: At the start of the day: Start with a normal breathing pattern through nose, then slow it down to 6 breaths per minute: 4 seconds in, 6 seconds out, 2 seconds natural pause. Holding your breath for 15-20s 5 times helps oxygenate the body and brain (brain uses 20% of our oxygen during rest) Training: Do something to warm up the respiratory system. Simply breathing in and out through the nose, then short, easy breath holds If training session is low intensity try to breath in and out through nose. You may initially see a spike in heart rate as its a stressor but the body will adapt and become more efficient and and economical with this breathing which can start to delay the onset of fatigue Post work out - slower breathing to relax Evening wind down: Encourage parasympathetic nervous system to relax and recover with slow nasal breathing (4 seconds in, 6 seconds out, 2 second natural pause) for 5 to 10 minutes Aim to have some breath work practices that can reduce respiratory rate to have benefits of increased engagement of vagus nerve and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. These are most successful when you use breathwork as part of your day rather than isolated 5 or 10 minute sessions.

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