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Breathing For Optimal Health and Performance

by Tommy Allen

If you ever want to see two things that don’t belong together: it would be me….and a yoga class. Never in my life have I ever felt more uncomfortable or out of place, mainly due to my inflexibility and lack of core endurance. When I was in college, the yoga instructor specifically pointed me out in front of the class about how “not to do it.”

But there is one thing I truly admire about the yogis: the power of the breath.

I want to preface this entire blog post by saying that all of this comes from the guy who is the least yogi, hippie, “one with earth” type of person you can think of. But there is a lot of scientific evidence supporting the power of the breath. My goal is to provide general health & performance examples and protocols to help you in your life and properly incorporate them into your routine. We are partnering with Mekanix Gym in Houston this Saturday from 1 pm to 4 pm for an active recovery session that includes performance breathing.

General Health

Whether it is relaxation, mindfulness, or general function, it all starts with breathing.

Our autonomic nervous system regulates many of our day-to-day functions like digestion, blood pressure, and hormonal responses. It can further break down into two parts:

1.         Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight)

2.         Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest & recover)

Both are completely necessary for different situations. A “fight or flight” mode not only protects us from real or perceived threats but is also a trigger to move into a “flow state.” Learn more about Flow from Steve Kotler.

We can use our “fight or flight” response for performance as well. Think of that ultimate playlist that gets you pumped up that specific workout or heavy back squat! That is the sympathetic nervous system kicking in.

You can also use super ventilation as a way to activate adrenaline and increase your sympathetic nervous system. Here are the folks from XPT going over the breathing protocol.

On the flip side, you also need to be able to manage stress and recovery. Most individuals I see in the gym are not adequately recovering and are not seeing the progress they want. Whether it is losing those extra pounds, gaining muscle mass, or consistently hitting workouts day in and day out, it all comes down to managing recovery. That is why we have our parasympathetic nervous system. It is the part of our autonomic nervous system that helps with “rest & digest.”

We can manage our stress by focusing on slowing down our breathing. Here is Dr. Patrick McKeown going over the breathing protocol to help stimulate recovery and relaxation.

Then there are the apparent health benefits of proper breathing mechanics. In his New York Times Best Selling book “Breath,” author James Nestor speaks about his journey from dysfunctional breathing and the health effects of mouth breathing.

Breath by James Nestor

The average human takes 25,000 breaths per day, and the vast majority of humans have become chronic mouth breathers. Mouth breathing has led to issues such as:

•          Sleep apnea

•          Bad breath

•          Misaligned jaws

•          Anxiety

•          Elevated heart rate and blood pressure

•          Depression

James participated in his own Stanford University study and experienced the effects of complete nasal blockage. The specific guidance he gives for lowering these chronic health issues is the following:

•          Focus on nasal breathing to help purify air

•          Symmetrical inhalations & exhalations to increase calmness and reduce anxiety

•          Trying to breathe less overall. It can slow down your heart rate and increase longevity

•          Train your respiratory muscles for more efficient breathing patterns. More on this to come in the section below.

Performance

Aside from the apparent need for oxygen during exercise, specific breathing protocols can help with performance and optimize your movement in all primary planes of motion.

The two main areas we will focus on are postural realignment and the development of the diaphragm and intercostal muscles to better clear CO2 from the body.

When it comes to postural realignment, we are talking about neutralizing the muscles that support proper breathing habits. If you were to lie down on your back, we could measure the degree of your infrasternal angle. The infrasternal angle is where the bottom of your rib cage meets the bottom of your sternum (see below).

Infrasternal Angle

This angle can tell us a lot about your breathing patterns and whether your body is overly compressed (internally rotated) or extended (externally rotated).

Ideally, you want to see about a 90-degree infrasternal angle. At this angle, your body is in the proper position for full inhalation and exhalation. When you have a wide infrasternal angle (> 90 degrees), your skeleton is overly extended, and you are overly inhaling. When you have a narrow infrasternal angle (<90 degrees), the body is compressed or internally rotated, and you are overly exhaling. Either of these compensatory breathing patterns moves your body into positions where it can no longer move in a full range of motion across primary planes of movement.

We have two different protocols to restore the body to a neutral position for proper breathing mechanics. These are protocols you can employ during your warm-up or your rest days, as they only take about 5 minutes.

Wide Infrasternal Angle (>90 degrees): Over-inhalation

10 Complete Breaths of:

•          Inhale through the nose for a 5-second count

•          With pursed lips, forced exhalation that recruits external obliques. We are trying to forcefully blow the air out with some resistance (i.e., pursed lips) to narrow our infrasternal angle

Narrow Infrasternal Angle (<90 degrees): Over-exhalation

10 Complete Breaths of:

•          Inhale through the nose for a 5-second count

•          With a relaxed mouth, quietly relax your diaphragm and let the air naturally come out (i.e., like you are trying to fog a glass)

Respiratory Limited Athletes

The last thing I want to mention about breathing a performance has to do with respiratory limited athletes. Exercise physiologist Evan Peikon has done a lot of research on this topic using Moxy. You can read more about this topic with Evan here.

Respiratory limited athletes are limited by their pulmonary system (i.e., lungs, diaphragm, and secondary inspiratory and expiratory muscles) during exercise.

If the pulmonary system cannot keep up, your body will not be able to clear carbon dioxide from the body. When the body becomes hypoxic (from a build-up of CO2), the oxygen carried on your red blood cells to your muscles will start to become “sticky” and will not unload into the muscle from your red blood cells to continue your work.

Ultra-endurance athletes are the standard avatars of respiratory limited athletes, which may seem counterintuitive. Their pulmonary systems function well during long-duration, low-intensity exercise but cannot overcome the increased demands of a high-intensity workout. It’s like asking a Honda Civic to drag race against a Corvette. The car wasn’t built for that intended purpose.

Outside of using medical-grade spirometry equipment like a Spirotiger, there are different conditioning protocols you can do with an Assault Bike, Rower, or Ski Erg that can help train your respiratory muscles. One such protocol is hard start intervals.

To help train the clearing of CO2, you can do 500M repeats that slowly descend in pace. For example:

Ten Intervals, or until you can no longer repeat:

Row 500M starting at 1:35 500M pace and slowly decrease pace by 0:10 every 100M. So a 500M interval would look like the following:

  • 1st 100M at 1:35 pace
  • 2nd 100M at 1:45 pace
  • 3rd 100M at 1:55 pace
  • 4th 100M at 2:05 pace
  • 5th 100M at 2:15 pace
  • Rest 2:00 between bouts

By slowing backing off the pace over the interval, we can allow the athlete’s pulmonary system to catch up with the intensity of the workout and effectively clear CO2 from the body. Over time, we can progress this workout by adding intervals or increasing the pace of each 100M split.

Conclusion

Whether you are looking to improve your overall health, relax, or get an edge over your competition, incorporating breathwork into your routine can lead to better long-term results.

If you are interested in learning more about breathing for general health and recovery, we partnered with Mekanix Gym this Saturday, June 26th, from 1 pm to 4 pm for an active recovery seminar.

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