Whenever I begin talking with someone about breathing, I generally get the same response, “Nah, man. I breath all the time. I’m breathing right now. Breathing is easy.” My reply is usually acknowledgement that breathing is easy, and yes, we do it all day long. But my reasoning for discussing breathing extends far past the surface level discussion of "it will help your performance." If we just stop there, we are almost guaranteed to overlook all the benefits that come with proper breath work and breathing practice. Let’s take a moment to talk about a bit more about the specifics of breathing.
Breathing is the most fundamental aspect of our human physiology. It is the most direct contact that we have with our autonomic nervous system, or ANS. The ANS, simplistically, is what our body does beyond our conscious control - regulation of breathing, heart rate and digestion. Of these ANS responses, breathing is the primary mode of chemical exchange in our bodies. About 70% of the toxins that we excrete out of the body are through our respiratory system, expelled through our breath. As coaches we can infer that if you are training hard or if you are breathing heavy you are going to have some metabolic waste, thus increasing the importance of being in a position that allows you to respirate.
Looking beyond just performance, breath work can have a multitude of benefits that will allow us to extend our longevity in and out of the gym. From the moment we are born, our ANS is able to transition between two different divisions: the sympathetic division and parasympathetic division. An easy way to remember the difference between the two is that our sympathetic nervous system is our body's fight or flight response, and our parasympathetic nervous system is our body's healing and recovering response. If you are operating in one system, you are not able to access the other, and finding a balance between both is vital if we want to have a long and healthy life (more to come in a later blog about the parasympathetic nervous system).
So why is this important? Most of us in modern America live primarily in a stimulated state the majority of the day. Whether that be staring at our phones or computers, training in the gym, or just managing perceived stressful situations, we spend a large part of our day in the sympathetic nervous system. Because of this, we automatically (and unknowingly) prioritize the systems we have for action or protection. Spending too much time here does not allow us to promote a healing system, and for athletes that means we are not adapting to training.
I think we can all agree that some athletes today tend to overstimulate themselves. Volume on top of volume does not equate to better performance. When we cannot breath in the middle of a workout, our body is telling us that we are too acidic and we have to recover. Breathing is our most natural and instinctual way to return to an alkaline state so we can continue to work. It is the easiest way to access the healing systems and requires no equipment and very little time.
Final thought: can any of you remember a time when you were little and you realized you were scared or upset? Did you run to your parent and guardian in hopes that they could save you? If the answer is yes, I bet they probably told you to slow down and breath the moment they saw you were upset. Now ask yourself this - where did they learn to say that? Was there a moment in time that all of humanity learned that the key to lowering our stress levels or calming down was breathing? No, I’m afraid there was not such an event. However, it is in our genetic makeup to instantly start breathing when we are need of recovering or returning to normal. It is a basic survival instinct, to breath in order to down-regulate our system and return to a balanced state.
You may be wondering "If it's so natural, why do I need to practice it?" Because, as I said earlier in this post, we spend more and more time with our sympathetic response on. If breathing is a key to flipping the switch from fight or flight to recovery and repair, then we must regain our hold on our ability to control our breath. Stay tuned for more on how we can begin to practice breathing and check out the Art of Breath Clinic we are hosting at the end of February!