Breathing For Performance

By: Aaron Knighton, NYX Athlete & Doctor of Physical Therapy

The most important component to endurance athletics is the ability to breathe. We do this on a regular basis, so it should be simple right? In theory yes, but have you ever stopped to think about how much this simple task impacts you on a larger scale?

On the surface, breathing is simply inhaling air into your lungs and then exhaling it back out. This process supplies our muscles with the necessary nutrients to work efficiently and powerfully. In addition, it has a huge impact on how your overall nervous system functions, which ultimately drives our performance during training and racing.

Breathing Mechanics:

Breathing is typically a passive action that is most closely related to a vacuum. By expanding the total volume of our lungs, air flows in and fills that space. To increase the total volume of your lungs, your belly distends, your ribs expand, your sternum (chest bone) lifts and your collar bone elevates. Take a moment and place your hands around your ribs and on your chest. Breath normally and appreciate which movements you perceive greatest. It may be your belly distending, or your upper ribs and collar bone elevating, it could even be all of these movements at once. This is your normative breathing pattern. 

In order for your lung volume to increase, muscle is required to move the aforementioned structures. The primary muscle that increases your lung volume is the diaphragm: a dome shaped muscle that is at the bottom of your rib cage. When the diaphragm contracts, it drops down into your abdomen, increasing the overall volume of your lungs. However, the abdomen is a constrained system; the total volume doesn’t change. When the diaphragm drops your belly has to expand in order to keep the total volume of the abdomen the same. If the belly doesn’t expand, it is near impossible to get a full breath because the diaphragm cannot move. More on this to come!

Connect to Your Body:

Think back to assessing your normative breathing pattern. Was your belly expanding? Was your chest elevating? Ideally, these would both occur together with the diaphragm as the dominant piece. The reason you may not be able to get a full breath is because you may be over contracting your core to stabilize your body. You have a specific muscle that wraps around your body like a corset, called the transverse abdominis. The sole purpose of this muscle is to stabilize your core and your spine; it provides no movement. However, it is very important to learn how to engage this muscle both concentrically and eccentrically. The concentric portion of this muscle is tightening around your core, that’s the easy part. However, the eccentric control can only occur when you diaphragmatically inhale, while engaging your core.

Try It:

Go ahead, contract your core as hard as you can and try to inhale. It is almost impossible to belly breathe because the diaphragm cannot drop down into the abdominal space. This is where teaching your body to breath, while engaging your core (specifically the transverse abdominis) is so vital. As endurance athletes, we rely on our core for hours on end, and the only way to keep this strong is to train it appropriately. This is why it is so important to continually belly breath during your training blocks (including strength).  

The reason it is important to understand how you breathe is because it greatly impacts your performance as an athlete, both during training and during recovery.

Recovery & Performance:

Recovery has become one of the hot topic discussions through the endurance community. If you recover well then you are able to perform at your maximum level during your next workout. However, have you ever stopped to think why recovery is so important? It is not just the moment your body is slowing down in order to heal and be ready for tomorrow, but it is in fact during this time you are making maximal performance gains. Contrary to belief, your actual workout is not where performance gains occur; it is the stimulus to tell your body to change and allow those gains to happen. The actual change that drives performance enhancement occurs during the recovery phase of your workout. It is the moment when your body takes your previous hard work and allows your body (down to the cellular level) to adapt. 

At its very foundation, the purpose of recovery is to allow your body to transition from sympathetic nervous system response to parasympathetic nervous system response. Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for “fight, flight or freeze,” and is highly active during the workout phase of your training. It is the part of your nervous system that allows your muscles to be fed so you can reach zone 5! However, staying in a sympathetic response does not allow your body to actually rest and transition out of your workout. In fact, it can lead to over training and burnout.

In order to effectively recover, you must allow your body to transition from sympathetic nervous system response to parasympathetic response. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for “rest and digest.” When you are in a parasympathetic response your heart rate slows down, you are able to refuel your body, and most importantly allow yourself to sleep. Most of the performance gains and healing your body needs occurs during your sleep cycle, so actively allowing yourself to transition into a parasympathetic response is vital to performance gains and longevity in endurance athletics. 

What does all of this have to do with breathing? Breathing, specifically diaphragmatic breathing, is one of the best ways to allow your body to transition into parasympathetic response; it decreases your heart rate, improves oxygenation to your muscles, leads to improved digestion and deeper sleep. In turn, diaphragmatic breathing further improves your respiratory and cardiovascular health which leads to long term performance gains.

In a world of recovery fads, take some time, lay on your back, place your hands on your belly, and just breathe.

Aaron Knighton is the owner of Blue Performance Group, based out of Boulder, Colorado. Aaron is a “Performance PT” and his philosophy is that improving how you interact with your most valued piece of equipment (your body), allows you to move more effectively and powerfully reaching your potential in a shorter period of time.

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