Mind Matters

Ok, ready for the first trick to better performance? Take a deep breath…and…. That’s it!  Just take a deep breath.
It seems a bit silly in light of the importance we place on nutrition (rightly so), that perhaps the only thing more essential than food and water is all but completely overlooked. I’m talking about oxygen. Think about this: How long can you live without food…Maybe a few weeks? How long can you live without water…A few days perhaps? How long can you live without oxygen? Go ahead…try. I’ll wait… You get the picture.
Drooling_DogSo, what do we do with this earth-shattering revelation? My suggestion is: learn how to use it. There are countless methods of breath manipulation, but only a handful of athletes make use of any of them. Swimmers, runners, cyclists, power lifters…that’s about it.
Think back to some of the hardest WODS you’ve done…remember that feeling of desperation?…the clock seemingly stuck with 4 mins remaining… battery acid coursing through your veins, stringy spit strands hanging from your bottom lip. But, too tired to wipe your mouth, you just blow at them on each exhale, looking like Mr. Ed playing the flute…until they finally unlatch or, if you’re like me, swing around and smack you on your eyelid. Now, with one eye incapacitated by spit-chain jewelry and your chest tightening like you’re being fitted for an 18th century whale bone corset, one word echoes loudly in your hollow, pounding skull…”AIR!!!”.

I know this feeling all too well. And, never to be outsmarted by spit, I’ve found a few things that can help. I only have enough space here to share one such method, but my door is always open, so to speak if you want to discuss others.

Learn How to Breathe More Deeply And Strengthen Your Breathing Muscles.

Most of us use only a tiny fraction of our lungs’ voluminous capacity. We are… “Shallow Breathers” (not you of course, but all the others, certainly). This is probably for a number of reasons like..its easier to do the minimum, or because you might look weird taking huge breaths in line at the grocery store or at a restaurant while trying to impress your date. But, shallow breathing malnourishes your body the same way not drinking enough water might. Almost every function you perform is dependent on oxygen. By practicing diaphragmatic breathing or “yogic” breathing, you can maximize the volume of air entering your lungs with each breath (Bigger breaths= more oxygen) and more completely expel the poisonous byproduct, carbon dioxide from your circulatory system. With consistent practice, you will also strengthen the breathing muscles (diaphragm and intercostals, not your nostrils), increase the capacity of your lungs, and improve the efficiency of oxygen utilization.

First, clean out your nose regularly, so you’re passage ways are clear. I like using a neti pot, but simply blowing your nose can suffice much of the time. Also, it helps to practice this breathing while sitting with a good, erect posture, but it can be done standing, lying, or walking as well.

a) Start each breath by filling your abdomen completely. This ensures you are using your diaphragm to create a vacuum. This is the most neglected part of breathing in our normal, busy lives, but actually accounts for the greatest amount of air intake during proper breathing.
b) Once your abdomen is completely expanded, allow your chest to expand completely.
c) Next, allow your shoulders and collarbones to rise as you top off your air supply.
d) Now, hold the breath for a few seconds or as long as is comfortable.
e) Finally, expel your breath slowly through your nose (or mouth if you must) reversing the order of the inhale. (Shoulders drop, chest collapses, abdomen contracts) until all of your breath is completely gone. You can ensure full exhalation by pulling your belly button toward your spine as far as possible.
f) Repeat…a good practice is to complete 10 full breaths every hour throughout the day, but repetitions and frequency can vary depending on the individual. I personally practice a variation of this technique, I learned from the yogic discipline of pranayama for 10 minutes twice a day. In this technique, I inhale completely in 4 seconds, hold for 32, and exhale for 24, alternating in and out breaths between my right and left nostrils to balance the air flow and for other reasons into which I will not go for the sake of time. I built up my capacity to accommodate these durations over time and, over time you will too. A good starting point is a ratio of
1:2:2 (inhale:hold:exhale), building to 1:4:2, then 1:6:4, then 1:8:6. You should never struggle or feel discomfort, so only increase durations if you feel completely comfortable.

Not only will this practice train your brain and body to default to proper breathing, but it will instantly help you feel more peaceful by reducing stress and relaxing physical tension. It also aids in digestion, immune system function, focus and other cognitive functions, and cardiovascular health.

I use this technique at least twice a day regardless of condition and context, but will employ it right before workouts for performance enhancement, upon awakening or any time I’m tired for an energy boost, and in times of stress or nervousness for a calming effect.

One last bit of advice….if you are interested in learning more about the technique, or need some empirical data regarding its efficacy, there is a ton of information online and in books. I encourage you to not take anybody else’s word for it, because we are all different. Try it out for yourself, and see if you like it. AND, the next time your fighting through a WOD, and the person next you is sporting spit-chain jewelry and making deposits in the puddle of saliva where his face lands on each burpee, remember to Take a Deep Breath.