Diaphragmatic Breathing

Breathing - something we all do automatically, but are we breathing optimally?

Due to the obvious fact that breathing keeps us alive, it seems a little bizarre to say that only 12 years ago did I really truly begin to understand the strange behaviours of the respiratory system. Aerobically I was the most efficient I have ever been. I would run most days with varying intensity and box 3-4 times a week, mainly consisting of typical boxing drills. My powers of recovery were almost instantaneous after anaerobic efforts, 6 rounds of intense bag work or pad work would feel relatively comfortable.

The day came when it was time to be fed to the lions so to speak; I sparred with someone numerous skill levels above me.

I distinctly remember after the 1st round, which at the time for amateurs was 2 minutes long, walking back to my corner and feeling my lungs slowly shrivelling up inside me. My diaphragm felt like it was glued to my chest cavity and my rib cage felt like it was trying to defuse a bomb. I had never been so physically drained, never had a minute gone by so quickly before it was time to go again. After the 2nd round I had enough, my arms, legs and shoulders felt like they had gained an extra 20kg. I spat out my gum shield as everything became an irritant, I felt like I couldn’t get enough oxygen.

When I sat down and recovered, I remember thinking how is it possible that I feel so fatigued? I was more than fit enough to compete, and the actual volume e.g. punches thrown/work rate were no different to rounds on the bag and pads, but after 4 minutes of sparring I was completely saturated. Over the years it became apparent I was not alone in this discovery, the phrase ‘baptism of fire’ fits perfectly for this scenario. I would go as far as saying every single time a novice would spar against someone who had a greater skill level or even just intense full contact, they would experience that same feeling no matter the aerobic and anaerobic capacity. It was then that I really felt the power of a sympathetic breathing response.
I had never moved my feet quicker and reacted so fast as in those 4 minutes
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Why did it feel like my left ventricle shrank into the size of a pea and how did my lungs flood with flames?

First, we must understand the process of breathing. Breathing is an autonomic nervous system action, messages are sent from the respiratory system to the medulla oblongata and the pons varolii in the brain telling us when to inhale and exhale. These messages are sent based on the regulation and trade-off between oxygen and Co2. It’s not a process we have to think about, thankfully. However, during those 4 minutes of sparring the sympathetic nervous system kicked in. We release hormones such as acetylcholine and noradrenaline which create many physiological changes; most notably dilation of the bronchioles, vasodilation of vessels, increasing blood supply to the heart and an increase in muscle tension. These responses all cause an increase demand for oxygen. This is commonly known as a “fight or flight” response, a survival mechanism.

It’s the body’s way of levelling up to a heightened state so to speak. In terms of performance, I had never moved my feet quicker and reacted so fast as in those 4 minutes but it comes with an extreme energy cost! Note this experience is just a good example of a sympathetic response, we have all experienced it at some point and can have those same responses to other forms of intense physical exercise, extreme cold and hot environments, psychological and emotional stressors.

Let me first clarify that this is not a bad thing IF we can harness that response in that given moment and use it to our benefit. There are two ways in which we can do that, breathing optimally and experience. After countless rounds of sparring, I had gained experience and adapted to those stressors or those stressors weren’t as potent, things got easier. I hadn’t got any fitter, it was purely due to the fact the stress response didn’t have the same effect. You typically see it in sport (and life) all the time, an inexperienced athlete or team stepping up to the big stage only to blow out and have their performance suffer, whilst the more clued competitor who has been there time and time again succeeds. Experience is something that is earned, over long periods of time – breathing, well that is something that is free and can be a powerful tool in mitigating those sympathetic effects.

The body goes into overdrive during this sympathetic response because of the increased oxygen demand and tends to exacerbate quick upper chest breathing patterns. This has been shown to be inefficient and a dysfunctional breathing pattern, as energy must be spent on each breath of inspiration rather than recovering optimally. Chest breathing also known as “shallow breathing” can result in or be symptomatic of rapid breathing and hypoventilation. We breathe this way under periods of high stress e.g. “panic attacks” and extreme physical exertion for one purpose, to stay alive. The body doesn’t care if you are sparring, running away from a bear in the woods or preparing for a big job interview. (Janda and Richardson Strength & Conditioning Journal34(5):34-40, October 2012) listed common signs of dysfunctional breathing patterns below.

Common signs of dysfunctional breathing patterns
Inhalation is initiated with lifting of the chest
Limited lateral rib cage expansion
Mouth breathing
Hypertonic anterior cervicals, including sternocleidomastoid muscles and scalenes
Elevated shoulder girdle
Frequent sighing
Resting breathing rate above 12-14 breaths
Forward head posture
The more you practice the more you can put into application
The thing is for a huge majority of us, this is not something which is just solely a reaction to high stress occurrences. These dysfunctional patterns are common occurrence in everyday life. A simple test which never seems to fail, take a deep breath then slowly exhale. Note how many of you breathed in with your mouth? How many of you breathed in by lifting your shoulders towards your ears? How many of you pushed your chest cavity out? I would bet most of you did 1 of those, if not all 3.

So How should we breath optimally?

There are many ways to perform diaphragmatic breathing, depending on what activity you are doing as well as with varying tempos and focus. Obviously laying down in the middle of the field when things get tough during a game of rugby, and breathing into your belly isn’t probably going to work. However, mastering the basics and learning correct breathing patterns over time should mean that you won’t have to. As with anything, the more you practice the more you can put into application.

Typically, a good place to start would be to lie comfortably on your back at rest, with one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Inhale through your nose 3-4 seconds, deep into your stomach trying to push your stomach out and into your hand. The chest (thoracic cavity) shouldn’t lift or rise at the shoulders with the inhalation. Hold for 2-3 seconds and then exhale through your mouth (pursed lips) 6-8 seconds and repeat for 30 reps 2-3x a day. Physiological evidence has indicated that this breathing practice significantly reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate variability (HRV) (Wang et al 2010, Lehrer and Gevirtz, 2014; Wei et al 2016), and oxygenation (Bernardi et al 1998), enhances pulmonary function (Shaw et al 2010), and improves cardiorespiratory fitness and respiratory muscle strength (Shaw et al 2010).

The one big hurdling block that crops up and is something I see on a regular basis, it’s simply just not the ‘done’ thing thus why we all breath poorly exacerbated by poor postures. People don’t like expanding their stomachs as far out as possible to take a breath in. It’s simply not ‘attractive’. Hopefully the benefits above should help you reconsider!
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Resisted diaphragmatic breathing

Interestingly a study on endurance athletes from (Gopaladha et al, 2014) found “that the improvement in cardiovascular endurance measured using resisted diaphragmatic breathing is higher than that of resisted abdominal exercises. Hence, this indicates that resisted diaphragmatic breathing exercise (using a small weight plate on stomach, progressive volume over 8 weeks training block) can successfully be incorporated in a fitness training program to improve cardiovascular endurance for sportsmen”.

Whilst this may come as a surprise for some people, would it be that obscure to suggest specific training of the respiratory system using correct breathing mechanics illicit an improvement in endurance? Hopefully this blog post has gone a long way to understanding how implementing diaphragmatic breathing regularly into your day can help improve performance.

The final word

Now had I been an expert at diaphragmatic breathing, I still wouldn’t have turned into a prime Mike Tyson for those 4 minutes. Would I have been able to control my recovery a little better? reduce tension and anxiety? increase longevity of performance using those methods above? Most certainly. I’ve seen instant results by implementing correct breathing techniques on clients, whether that be post training recovery or a tactical parasympathetic breath during the rest period of an intense lactate interval session. Breathing is not a conscious act, but if you truly take time to train it you can experience some pretty cool physiological changes. There are S&C coaches implementing a lot of these techniques and boasting some incredible performance claims. Matt Van Dyke an Associate Director of Applied Sports Science at the University of Texas suggested “These adaptations include increased tolerance of carbon dioxide, increased nitric oxide production, and finally the increase in the number of red blood cells. Each of these can be achieved through the specific implementation of breathing techniques in order to reduce “over-breathing” which is experienced commonly amongst athletes”.

It is something that is so simple, yet so overlooked in pursuit for more complex strength and conditioning methods to improve performance. Breathing is the one of the most fundamental components of life, take the time to do it right.
Jamie Scott