Improving Breathing and Performance (Part 4): Breathing and Stress - How to Shut Down and Recover Your Nervous System
We've already discussed how to increase performance with breathing and bracing strategies during movements (I highly recommend checking out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 to get the whole picture), but what about when the training, competition, mission, or workday is over? An inability to shut down, sleep, and recover is not only frustrating to that individual which further amplifies the stress, but is also untapped potential for performance gains. Recovery may be the most important part of your workout.
In normal diaphragmatic breathing, the heart rate accelerates when breathing in and decelerates when breathing out. This Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a glimpse into the balance of the nervous system. When athletes are in a constant state of sympathetic dominance, the heart beats like a drum and does not have a normal variability. This is exacerbated by heavy upper chest and neck breathing (discussed in detail in Part 1) and poor diaphragmatic activity resulting in chronic over-breathing. Loss of HRV is even found to be predictive of mortality in those with heart conditions.
Improving Breathing and Performance (Part 3): How to Breathe and Brace Without Loss of Mechanics During High-Rep Movements
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how mouth breathing can alter head-neck control. In Part 2, we talked breathing during max effort. And as we discussed, holding your breath (with appropriate mechanics) is a natural, physiologic method for maximizing spinal stiffness and force output under very heavy loads. However, holding your breath during repetitive movements is not only metabolically costly, it is also mechanically inefficient - and most of our daily movements involve the need to breathe under sub-maximal load and for more than one repetition. So for Part 3, we need to establish how to breathe during high-repetition, serial movements without loss of mechanics.
To move more efficiently we need to have a global bracing strategy during high-rep movements (which, face it, submax repetitive movements are what make up daily life and most athletic movements) in which spinal control is never lost and efficiency is high.
Think about breathing into a steel canister - this will allow breathing to occur where it's most effective (the diaphragm) without having to reconstitute spinal stiffness after each breath. The goal is to never lose position nor stiffness, while still being able to breathe under load. Chest breathing will accompany this when demand requires it - and that's okay to supplement the diaphragmatic breathing - but a proper bracing strategy will always apply. This will take some time and mental energy to master during training but will pay dividends in terms of injury prevention and performance (which are synonymous in my opinion).
There a ton of advanced breathing assessments and techniques out there but we can lop off a lot of dysfunction if we follow this basic principle of an appropriate and reproducible breathing/bracing strategy.