If breathing is not normalised, then no other movement pattern can be, says Sarah Cremen
The current state of the health and fitness industry can leave a lot to be desired… social media feeds awash with genetically gifted influencers touting their amazing abs and booty workouts and motivational quotes to the theme of go hard or go home or train insane or remain the same. It may not be sexy, but in a world of fitter, faster and stronger, learning how to breathe fully and effectively is an undervalued and overlooked practise that is actually essential to limiting pain and injury and increasing performance.
Improved breathing equals improved training
Prioritising rest and recovery is a topic for another week, but miss out on it and at best, you’ll probably hit a plateau, at worst, you risk serious injury. Another reason for injury? Our inability to breathe properly. Aside from being essential for life, how we breathe is a huge factor in pain and performance. Our body’s autonomic nervous system controls our breathing, meaning respiration is effectively regulated by our body without having to consciously think about each inhale and exhale… which is a good thing, considering the average person takes upwards of 20,000 breaths per day. So, while our autonomic nervous system allows us to focus on more exciting aspects of life, the lack of consciousness about our breath can also lead to trouble. Inefficient breathing and dysfunctional breathing patterns results in the inhibition of important core stabilisers, poor movement patterning and postural compensations. In layman’s terms; a slew of issues including weak core, headaches, poor posture, pain and stiffness in necks, shoulders, backs etc. Considering most of us spend our days going full tilt to achieve our goals, practising controlled breathing and learning how to recondition our respiratory muscles and develop efficient core function not only improves movement quality, it allows our bodies to shift to a parasympathetic state which optimises our internal environment for rest and recovery.
The stress cycle
The function of our diaphragm is affected by stress… a general term that encompasses physical (training, injury), emotional (relationship, workplace) and lifestyle (sleep, diet, hydration) factors. The thing about our body’s central nervous system is that it doesn’t differentiate between different types of stress… good or bad, they all initiate the same response; stimulation of your sympathetic nervous system resulting in increased heart rate, perspiration, increased blood pressure, muscle tension and shallow, rapid, apical breathing. The inefficient gas exchange that occurs with such breathing can bring about a shift in the PH of our bodies. A relatively more acidic PH stimulates production of an inflammatory factor in the body, increases our pain threshold sensitivity and can promote development of painful trigger points in the body. Essentially, it creates a vicious cycle that pushes our bodies further into a state of stress.
Stimulating the sympathetic nervous system isn’t a bad thing, it saves us when we’re facing danger. However, the body wasn’t built to deal with chronic stress. Walking around in a permanent state of heightened activation is detrimental to our health. So, the ability to calm its effects by moving to a parasympathetic state is equally as necessary. How do we do this? Breathing.
How well we move is reliant on your true core function – controlled by your intrinsic core stabilisation system; a group of muscles that form a cylinder shaped postural support system that uses intra abdominal pressure to generate force, strength, speed and stamina and more importantly, limit pain and injury. How does one harness the power of this pressure system? Breathing.
How do we breathe properly? For now start with the breathing drill below…
Simple breathing drill
Position: sitting, on your back, standing, or walking.
Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
Maximally exhale making an “ah” sound.
Close your mouth and silently inhale while counting to 4.
Do not exhale…hold for 4 seconds.
Now exhale through your mouth with an “ah” sound for 8 seconds.
Repeat this cycle 3 more times.
Next week I’ll be covering breathing techniques in greater depth and how to incorporate them into your training regimen to optimise performance.
Sarah is a Dublin-based personal trainer and physiotherapist with a love for all things training, outdoors and coffee. For more information visit sarahcremen.ie