It’s not as hard as learning how to ride a bike, but using your diaphragm takes some practice.

The 2017 CrossFit Open is just around the corner.  People who are competing for the first time tend to have some trepidation and anxious curiosity about what they should expect, and those who have participated in the Open before know what lies ahead.  As coaches we want to give you every piece of advice to make each workout (and all workouts for that matter) easier and more manageable for you.  So lets talk about some low-hanging fruit that will guarantee to help your performance: breathing with your diaphragm.

How is breathing with your diaphragm different?

Great question.  In the medical world the correct term would be diaphragmatic breathing, which is characterized as breathing that is done by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. When breathing in this manner, air enters the lungs and the belly expands.

A fun fact about diaphragmatic breathing is that it is known scientifically as eupnea, which is a natural and relaxed form of breathing in all mammals. Eupnea occurs in mammals whenever they are in a state of relaxation, i.e. when there is no clear and present danger in their environment.  Sounds a lot like what we talked about last week…

It is important to note that the use of diaphragmatic breathing is commonly practiced in those patients with cardiopulmonary disease because of a variety of benefits that help to improve pulmonary function, cardiorespiratory performance, respiratory muscle and strength, and posture.  Congruently, studies have shown that athletes who complain about “exercised induced asthma” display very poor breathing mechanics.  Treatment for such cases always begin with diaphragmatic breathing exercises which has shown to eliminate all symptoms in 30% of athletes who initially believed they had asthma and need to be medicated (I can cite sources if you are interested). 

More and more we are finding that it is common for people to begin diaphragmatic breathing whenever a problem arises, but this doesn’t have to be the case.  At Kingfield, our message a has always been about longevity and staying ahead of the problems before they arise.  Think of this as an added benefit to your own health insurance that doesn't cost a thing and can be done literally anywhere!

Can I do something to warm-up for diaphragm breathing or make it easier?

Absolutely.  Our diaphragm is a muscle, and just like any muscle you can perform some routine maintenance to ensure that it is performing optimally.  We would recommend gut/abdominal smashing in order to help alleviate some of the tacked down muscle fibers that come with any type of midline exercise.  Most people I have worked with have never touched their diaphragm.  To do so, softly exhale, take two of your fingers and slide them underneath the border of your ribcage.  Push your fingers up into the inside of your ribcage and you will feel your diaphragm pushing into your fingers.  Pretty simple.

Gut smashing is taking away that chronic ab tone and creating more room for our diaphragm to expand, resulting in us being able to take full breaths.

Through breathing we are able to decrease sympathetic stimulation of the vagus nerve, and allow for a parasympathetic response to take over.  This is done by elevating our own blood oxygen levels, resulting in a lower heart rate and an immediate sense of relaxation (just like last week's blog post about dogs)!

Understand that not a lot of things contact the vagus nerve—but when something does, it changes your ability to relax.  Even though you’d been relaxed before, this direct access route can be extremely threatening. You have reason to be up in arms.  It takes some mental work to be able to allow yourself to create conditions so you can allow that mechanical pressure to do its thing.     

How can I begin practicing diaphragmatic breathing?       

You can begin your own breathing practice and learn to use your diaphragm by utilizing a couple of different methods.  First you can simply get a straw and begin breathing deeply with full, smooth inhales and exhales.  The straw will create enough resistance that you will automatically begin using your diaphragm and (sometimes unknowingly) adjust your posture in order to find the best position in which you can continue to breathe.  If any of you have tried using a training mask before, I’m sure you noticed the same thing.  Continue breathing by fully inhaling and fully exhaling for 5 to 10 minutes.  Practice this everyday for one week and you will begin changing your physiology and creating new habits.    

Another method we would recommend is Pranayama breathing.  Pranayama comes from two Sanskrit words: "prana", meaning the fundamental life force, and "yama" meaning to control. Pranayama, therefore can be described as channeling or controlling the life force, and the key to understanding prana is the breath.  To begin pranayama breathing find a comfortable position sitting cross-legged or lying on your back.  First begin breathing naturally and noticing your breath.  After a couple of moments begin inhaling into your belly and notice how it expands.  Next, continue inhaling into your ribcage and chest, noticing how it rises and expands.  On your exhale, allow your chest to fall and your belly to lower.  Repeat this cycle for 3-5 minutes.

So how does this help me with the Open or working out for that matter?

Next week we will touch on some drills that you can do pre and post workout to help with your breathing mechanics.  The upcoming Art of Breath seminar with Brian Mackenzie and Rob Wilson will be spending an entire day discussing this very topic and more.  Take time this week to think about your breathing patterns and stay tuned next week for more tips!

-Coach Danny