A few years back I got into a heated debate on FaceBook because of breathing. I responded to a post that was asking about “breathing problems”. My response was something along the lines of “now that everyone has been to a weekend course on breathing, and everyone is an expert, no one knows what a breathing problem is.” Begin the firestorm. I intended to point out that marketing/selling breathing workshops were at their peak and “breathing” was the current marketing buzzword that everyone was trying to grab a dollar on. In the actual post, people were circling all of the high-level theoretical discussions, but no one could answer the simple question I asked about how were they filtering whether the breathing problem was a ventilation problem (getting air in/out) versus an oxygenation problem (the physiology side of it). Any good breathing material differentiates between the two and explains it well – this wasn’t occurring though.
We have instituted breathing practice into our clinical rehab world and our sports performance world for the past nine years. Sadly, looking back, 90% of what we have done I consider a failure – it was the best practice at the time, but as we have learned more my response is always “oops, my bad – we could have done that better.” It has continually changed. Personally, I’m a huge fan of breathing. Professionally, I see this as an untapped resource to imporovement in 99.9% of the population – and when I say improvement I mean:
- decrease pain
- improved soft tissue quality
- decreased anxiety
- improved cognitive function
- increased physical output
- decreased recovery time
- more efficient recovery
Here is why I see this as an untapped resource – EVERYONE BREATHS WRONG! Okay, well, technically if you are reading this you aren’t breathing “That wrong.” Yes, we all are effective at breathing – meaning we get enough oxygen in to meet our survival needs, but most of us are very inefficient at breathing. We are busy, but not productive. So, the moment of truth: are you a busy breather or a productive breather? Here is the test – its the BOLT test from Oxygen Advantage. You will need a stopwatch:
- Breath normally for 1-2 minutes.
- Fully exhale all of the air from your lungs (I’d recommend, doing this somewhat quickly – not a looooong sloooow drawn out exhale, but a short quick exhale with a purpose).
- Once you are fully exhaled, start the timer.
- Stop the timer when you inhale.
Let me guess your time – LESS THAN 20 seconds? Who panicked before they got to 10 seconds? The first time I tried this I crushed it with a time of 17 seconds – luckily I had a sundial to measure the time. Here’s the kicker – 20 seconds is considered the minimal time to fall into normal, so anything less than 20 seconds indicates a breathing issue. That fight or flight response that you experienced was normal – that is from an increase in the sympathetic tone that is associated with increased levels of carbon dioxide in the body.
The Real Problem
At the root of this is the fact that for 22 hours a day most of us breathe wrong – meaning we are breathing fast and shallow and are not filling our lungs. Then for 2 hours, we go from 0-100 and try to crush it in our training. Often we get gassed quickly. Before you went for that 5-mile run, what did you do to prepare your lungs for the task? You probably warmed up with a light jog, and maybe some stretches to get your legs ready. BUT – WHAT DID YOU DO TO PREP YOUR LUNGS? Before you did today’s WOD that included barbell snatches, burpees, and wall balls what did you do to prepare your lungs for the task at hand? Maybe some mobility work? Before you started the 60-minute kettlebell swing challenge, what did you do to prepare your lungs for the task at hand? Did you just show up and start with the swings? For distance running, any Metabolic Conditioning and any physical task, the lungs are kind of important in the outcome, but we neglect them. What is your breathing prep? If you don’t have one, we have just identified an area of improvement for you AND better yet, one that you can see rapid improvement in quickly.
First, we have to improve the tissue quality of the muscles that have the most influence on breathing. We are going to start with the diaphragm. FYI, I’m totally stealing this part from my FaceBook post last week:
The diaphragm forms the top of the abdominal cylinder and needs to be in good shape to be able to do its job. When we consider it’s role in breathing coupled with the fact that we breathe all day, the diaphragm is often neglected – we assume all is good with it. But, like I’ve said before – if you don’t address tissue quality before you apply a corrective exercise, you haven’t done a corrective exercise. There is a TON of great work out there on breathing – it truly is all good stuff. BUT, we can’t assume the diaphragm is good to go – we have to treat it like the muscle it is, which is like we would treat any muscle. Address the trigger points, then apply a corrective. Simple.
While we cannot get after the entire diaphragm, we do have access to a little bit of it where it connects to the anterior ribs – so, be ready to be uncomfortable with this one. For this you are not just laying on a medicine ball (which works better than a foam roll). You are essentially trying to jam that stupid med ball up under the bottom of your ribs – right up into the diaphragm. The smaller the med ball the better. Once you get here, address the middle, the right side, and the left side 10-15 nice slow breaths each. ENJOY!
After the diaphragm, you can attack any of the muscles that attach to the rib cage. You will likely get more bang-for-your-buck by going after the rectus abdominis, the obliques, and the intercostals. However, any muscle that attaches to the rib cage is fair game.
Repeat step 1. It’s THAT important!
This week, let’s focus on attacking the tissue quality. Spend 10 minutes a day working on this, preferably right before bed or right before you train.
Like Kelly Starrett says – if it’s (tissue quality) beef jerky, that’s not good. Healthy soft tissue should be able to accept pressure without it being painful. Odds are when you lay on that medball for the first time, you may have some choice words to say – that is just confirmation that we found a limitation to performance (in life and sport). How we breathe, and our physiological and psychological response to this has impacts on our daily lives that we cannot underestimate. Nevermind how this will affect our physical output – that is the cherry on top. Improved breathing can literally change our lives.