For all types of training breathing is the number-1 priority. If we don't breath, we die. If we don't breath effectively, we decrease our performance levels. Correct breathing greatly increases your work-capacity, helps develop your energy systems, builds a stronger 'core' and protects your spine. We do this by developing breathing skills, especially in developing the skill of deep diaphragmatic breathing. One of the best ways to do this is to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing is not only to take specific time out to work on breathing but also to practice during a training workout or practice session.
For Special Operators, breath control is a key tool for maximising performance, increasing the levels of relaxation and for managing stress. It is a vital tool, which when practiced correctly, can be utilised at any time to help you get control of yourself and get you in control of chaotic situations. But it is a practice which must be done correctly and consistently.
In training, for all your major lifts, diaphragmatic breathing helps to: i) maximise the use of oxygen; and ii) to brace thoracic and abdominal cavity and protect the spine during the lift. Correct diaphragmatic breathing for lifting will assist with achieving both outcomes. The general prescription for breathing during exercise is inhalation prior to or during the eccentric portion of said exercise, and exhalation during or near-completion of the concentric phase. To give an example using the heavy barbell Deadlift - inhale, pack-the-shoulder and brace-the-core before lifting the bar, and start to exhale prior to completing the lift.
Note: Diaphragmatic breathing, along with setting-the-shoulder, core-stabilisation and Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation form 4 key Lifting Fundamentals (which I will cover in more detail in later articles).
Regardless of the activity, whether it be running or weightlifting or any other movement, practicing breathing techniques and protocols will greatly enhance your performance, recovery and mind state. There are various techniques to use depending on the exercise and the outcome you're aiming for. For example: efficient breathing during running will require you to breath in and out every 4 paces (3-in and 1-out). While lifting weights for strength and power development will require you to use your diaphragm to inhale and hold your breath during the exertion phase of the lift (as described above) while keeping your chest, spine and torso braced. Both techniques require practiced variations of diaphragmatic breathing. These specific techniques should be explored in more detail based on the outcomes you are aiming for.
Controlled diaphragmatic breathing during a workout is essential to for many reasons, including to increase our lactate threshold and for assisting with recovery between reps and sets. But it has far greater reaching benefits as well.
Short term benefits of diaphragmatic breathing include: Reduced anxiety by balancing O2 / CO2 levels; Improved Oxygen (O2) saturation levels (low O2 saturation is implicated in many body functions like erectile dysfunction); and induction of a relaxation response.
Medium Term benefits (after 8 weeks of intervention) include: A significant decrease in negative emotion; Improvement in sustained attention; significantly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (Xiao, Zi-Qi, Zhu-Quing, Zhang, Nai-yue, Yu-Tong, Gao-Xia, You-Fa, 2017); improved sports performance; and reduced pain levels in people with chronic pain (Dr Eric Cobb, Z Health: episode 9: a crash course in breathing).
Long term benefits of diaphragmatic breathing: Structural and functional changes to the heart which allows it to pump blood more efficiently; and increased Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
HRV relates to the variations in the rhythm of how the heart beats, not just the rate, i.e. beats per minute. HRV is an indication of parasympathetic control, this being the part of the autonomic nervous system responsible for “rest and digest” (as opposed to sympathetic nervous system for "fight or flight"). Low HRV is associated with chronic health problems including cardio vascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. Higher HRV is seen to protect people from acute and chronic stress responses and disorders such as PTSD.
'Intervention' or the implementation of breathing practices is a method to train the body’s nervous system so that the relaxation response can down regulate (turn off) the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system ('fight and flight' system). By regular conscious practice we can develop our subconscious towards better breathing therefore providing all the above-mentioned benefits without conscious effort.
Initially this conscious effort can be implemented in your training to assist with improving your lactic threshold, improve O2 saturation and increase CO2 tolerance. One easy step to do this is to incorporate the 'Stepped breathing' protocol into your everyday training routine. Stepped breathing is a process where we progressively transition from: i) nasal only breathing (in-nose: out-nose); ii) to in-nose:out-mouth breathing; to iii) in-out mouth breathing over the course of a workout. We make the transition through each step when exertion levels dictate that we can't maintain the prior step and must progress to the next. This is especially beneficial during low-intensity aerobic workouts where we can focus on the stepped process without overly taxing the central-nervous system (CNS). While you are learning the skill, it's important to make breathing the focus for these sessions (instead of speed, power and intensity).
For strength and power based training, you can implement the protocol between sets. During your rest you can revert to nasal only breathing to provide the brain with more feedback on O2/CO2 balance to enable better recovery prior to your next set. Alternatively during a high-intensity workout, when you need to take a quick break, you can practice restricting yourself to 3 x deep diaphragmatic breaths (in-nose : out-mouth) before commencing the next set. These are very easy and quantifiable processes to improve all aspects of our performance, training and life.
Specific breathing protocol can also be employed to increase O2 efficiency and utilisation by simulating high-altitude (low O2) environments.
Breathing is equally important for recovery, managing stress, relaxation and clearing and calming the mind. Focused breathing protocols such as Grossman's 4-Count Protocol are valuable techniques for relaxing the mind and attaining clarity of mind during periods of high-stress. David Grossman, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Rangers, wrote about this in his study of tactical breathing in his book, On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace.
The 4-Count Protocol entails mindfully using deep diaphragmatic breathing in the following cycle: 4-count breath-in; 4-count hold; 4-count breath-out; 4-count hold. You continue this cycle until you feel relaxed in body and mind and are able to reduce your heart rate and alleviate feelings of anxiety and stress. This is also a good technique to use during mindfulness and meditation practices and for preparing to sleep.
Evidence suggests that a variety of other breathing protocols can also significantly contribute to, not only performance, but also immune function by supporting the autonomic nervous system. There are a literally hundreds of breathing drills and protocols to assist with all aspects of focusing, training, recovering, relaxation, performance improvement and overall quality of life. These should be explored and utilised in any program you undertake.
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