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The Physiology and Psychology of Breath

Written by Hannah Dykstra 

       Most CrossFit athletes have been drilled with the concept of intensity and high-power performance, yet many miss the mark when it comes to factors such as mobility and recovery. Many of us, including myself, are guilty of neglecting these less glamorous details when we focus solely on the daily WOD and flooring ourselves in the process. 

       Recovery can mean many things and many practices, yet I’d like to focus on the body’s immediate response to intense stimulus via oxygen. It’s a no-brainer that oxygen is essential to life – after all, it is the highest priority on our primal list for survival. In the world of physical performance and fitness, we’ve learned to eat quality food and stay hydrated, all in the name of health and recovery for those glorified “gains” we chase after. Unfortunately, because breathing is so automatic and unconscious, we tend to overlook it’s incredible importance and take it’s benefits for granted, thus missing out on it’s full potential for our performance. 

       So what is the correlation between intensity and oxygen? Exercise Physiologists use the acronym EPOC (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption) that refers to the oxygen intake needed after physical activity in order to reach homeostasis, or balance, within the body. Like food, oxygen is used to fuel our bodies throughout a bout of exercise or physical activity and likewise will become depleted and must be replenished. The level of intensity experienced in a workout is in direct correlation to the amount of oxygen that should be replaced. The higher the intensity, the greater the deficit and therefore the harder your body will have to work to repay that oxygen debt. Studies prove that EPOC is influenced solely through intensity of exercise and not the duration of it.

       Aside from the scientific importance of breathing comes the psychological properties. Doctors, lawyers, first-responders, nurses, teacher, students, moms and pops alike all practice exercise and the world of fitness is not exclusive to one generation, occupation or personality type. Each of these individuals practice a hustle that goes beyond the gym whether it’s getting the kids to school in time, reaching a deadline at work or school, working for a job promotion, or in any other chaos or challenge that life finds us in. As much as we may hate to admit it, we live in a  culture of constant overdoing and have fallen habit to this addictive cycle. 

       Brian McKenzie, author of Power Speed Endurance, uses the analogy of a lion and the antelope to describe this stressful state we live in. Both are on the chase for survival – for the lion, it is to eat and for the antelope, it is purely to stay alive. Once one of these creatures has won in its pursuit, it will then rest and digest to recover from it’s stressful chase before the next event of survival. In humans, we chase after our endeavors fervently and even when we reach our goals, we often seek more. We rarely, if ever, make a conscious effort to settle and allow ourselves to recover emotionally, physically or otherwise from our hard work and struggle. 

       This state of being creates chemical warfare in the body that can be compared to the effect of drugs and sends our body into a continuous “fight or flight” mode that rarely gets turned off. Maintaining such high levels of stress while ignoring the signals our bodies send us is an alarming path to destruction on many levels of our wellbeing. This constant level of high stress necessitates recovery and one of the best ways to do this is through the practice of breath. 

       Breathing and meditation not only are important factors to physical recovery, but are important for emotional release as well. When you can free the mental stresses consciously or unconsciously hold, your physical practices will improve as well and help you become a better parent, boss, employee, co-worker, partner, CrossFit-er, or anything else that you want to become. In order to meet your intentions, there are behavioral steps that must be practiced or intention will mean next to nothing. 

       There are several methods to practicing recovery through breath. Although this list is far from extensive, here are 3 simple routines that you can begin to practice:

Controlled Hyperventilation 

       Controlled hyperventilation is often used by athletes because it creates a negative CO2 environment which creates similar chemical reactions and experience of euphoria that people reach through the use of drugs. Through rapid cycles inhalation and exhalation, one can achieve a euphoric state that can help in releasing feelings of stress and increase the capacity of consciousness, or awareness, in order to tackle challenges with better mental clarity. This routine is best used in preparation for performance or leading up to a particular event. 

Tactical/Belly Breathing

       Most of the breathing that we do in our day-to-day are very shallow breaths through our chest. In contrast, belly breathing is shown to be the most effective way to reach full breath capacity while training. The greater amount of muscle in your upper body, the heavier your body will become during a workout as blood will be sent into those muscles. As a result, this means that throughout a workout we begin to lose our ability to expand our lungs, causing us to be short of breath. Belly breathing expands our opportunity and space for breath by using the lower lungs and diaphragm to reach full breathing capacity.

       This method is also known as tactical breathing and is commonly used by Navy SEALs to control anxiety and remain calm during stressful activity. The best time to use this method would be for performance purposes. 

Lying flat on the floor, place one hand on your stomach and push your belly out as far as you can by pulling the breath in through the nostrils. Think of pressing your belly into the spine as it fills, then through the diaphragm and finally into the chest. This three-part breath will allow you to fill the deep portions of the lungs and expand to full capacity. To exhale, start with the chest, then the diaphragm and back to sinking the belly. Practice long inhales and exhales to consume and expel as much oxygen as possible with each breath.

Box Breathing

       In practice, box breathing is very similar in mechanics to the tactical breathing, but adds a hold at the top and bottom of the breath. This “box” pattern of inhale, hold, exhale and hold give this practice its name. In performance, holding your breath would not be recommended, so box breathing is best as a preparation, recovery or meditation method. 

       As you continue to face the challenges of life, in and out of the gym, you will also continue to reach new heights of intensity. In your successes, remind yourself the importance of recovery so that you can continue to achieve greater things and practice this through simple patterns of breathing. 

January 19, 2017 | Blog | 1

One Response to The Physiology and Psychology of Breath

  1. JP says:

    This is so essential for everyone. Thank you Hannah, breathing is something we do unconsciously and not very well. When we start to take accountability with our breath and intention, we are better served to be able to handle anything and everything!

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