There’s a renaissance of focus on breathing practices right now—it’s everywhere and almost ridiculous. That’s coming from somebody who has spent a large portion of their personal and professional life in the last decade studying, developing, and teaching breathing techniques to improve health and performance. If I’ve learned one thing over the course of that time, it’s the same darn thing I learned once I dug deep enough into any field: breath control is just not that complicated. The mechanisms are complex; you might even say miraculous. But the doing of the thing at its most fundamental is downright simple.Breath control is just not that complicated. The mechanisms are complex; you might even say miraculous. But the doing of the thing at its most fundamental is downright simple. Click To Tweet
Complexity bias causes humans to take what can often be boiled down into a simple heuristic and muddy up the application while waxing poetic about the nuances. In the performance environment, however, there’s no time to be wasted. Problems have to be solved fast and, in the process, at least not take energy away from the most important thing of all—succeeding at your given endeavor. While getting into the weeds of breathing practices can be fun for the super nerds like me, sport and strength coaches have bigger fish to fry and far more responsibilities than simply making sure their athletes are breathing “correctly.”
This article aims to explain the most fundamental and invariant aspects of breath control so they can be deployed quickly and efficiently in performance environments where more pressing skill development has to take place for the athlete (and the coaches) to accomplish what they really want: winning.
Autonomic Versus Volitional Breathing
All of the positive stuff that the 1,000 internet kung fu breathing techniques have to offer can be summed up in three simple words: Breathe on purpose.
As I’m sure anybody reading this is well aware, we mostly breathe on autopilot. The autonomic nervous system drives breathing through an incredible system of redundant feedback loops that constantly adjust for the dynamic needs of both our internal and external environments. Those feedback loops are deep in the brain and body—like brainstem, reptilian, iceberg-under-the-water deep.
Our nearly 25,000 breaths per day are powered by a system we are mostly unaware of. Unless, of course, there’s a malfunction like choking or even an exercise-induced asthma attack, then it’s all eyes on me and all hands on deck to restore breathing immediately. As far as triage goes, breathing is on the top rung of the ladder when it comes to surviving. Thus, lots of powerful software is built into it to keep the motor running.
There are chemoreceptors and baroreceptors in the carotid bodies of the neck as well as the aorta of the heart that provide a constant feedback loop about carbon dioxide in the arterial blood. There are a variety of stretch receptors in the lungs and thoracic cavity that help regulate pressure in the rib cage. These and many more signals commingle in a symphony that adapts to our needs (real and perceived) in real time and breath by breath. It is truly a marvel. The deeper you look, the more glorious the whole thing is. So why would we ever mess with such a beautifully self-regulating mechanism? Why would one breathe on purpose?
I’m glad you asked.
As I previously mentioned, the mechanisms that control autonomic breathing are located deep in our oldest evolutionary physiology. As such, their modus operandi completely and utterly revolves around two simple goals: survive and replicate.
Embedded in these criteria is the implicit regulation of metabolism, in which breathing plays no small part. Breathing is essential in the regulation of blood pH, which is tightly contained for the trillions of chemical reactions to take place every single moment of our entire lives. The idea of metabolic, and therefore energetic, regulation will be a core component of our discussion as we move forward, not only in how it applies to the potential development of physiological energy systems, as I’ve discussed in prior articles, but also in the forms of mental and emotional energy—which, by the way, are directly connected with the physiological. The only place they are separate, in fact, is in discussion.
Breathing responds not only to the energetic demands placed on the body by movement vigor and lethargy but, additionally, to both acute and long-term psychological and emotional distress and ease. These can become ingrained into this neurology as with any other habit and, when combined into a perfect storm, can inhibit the efficiency with which an athlete operates. When we are talking about squeezing every bit of juice out of the lemon of performance, a little bit of efficiency goes a long way.
Most of the time, the habits that develop around these things go unnoticed because, as the saying goes, “Your body is an obedient dog” (thanks Dr. Kelly Starrett). We will adapt and compensate for dysfunction to keep the train on the tracks in all sorts of amazing and interesting ways. Athletes with exercise-induced asthma can inhaler their way through competition; conversely, the obese may produce exhaust just from walking up a few stairs.
The human body is truly a marvel. The brain stem keeps that diaphragm pumping, and as long as things don’t go too far, organs will pick up the slack and keep on keeping on. This deep part of the brain just handles business.
Wait. Did I talk about the “on purpose” part yet? Sorry.
There’s some fancy deep reptile physiology that autoregulates the ins and outs of breathing (forgive the pun). But what is it about our human brain that can do really cool stuff, too? This is where things get interesting. Along with the development of the human brain came our ability to sense and make sense of our internal state more deeply. The frontotemporal-insular cortices and the cingulate cortex control and attend to our interoceptive perception, respectively. When we move our attention to breathing, the cingulate cortex fires, and we can better audit internal events of the body.
- Hold your breath for 5–10 seconds.
- Now, breathe fast.
- Now, breathe slowly.
We’re the only animal on the planet that purposefully attends to and regulates rhythms of breathing for specific outcomes. Voluntary muscular activation of breathing happens via the phrenic nerve. Phrenic is an archaic word meaning mind (as in schizophrenia). The insight of the ancients alludes to one of the major benefits of breathing on purpose—you have better insight into the workings of your mind and, therefore, the ability to control your body’s reaction to it, and vice versa.Breathing on purpose is a direct line of communication to the deepest layers of our nervous system, helping the symphony get back into tune. Click To Tweet
Most of the time, the symphony plays the music without the conductor. But, on occasion, the brass and the strings get a little out of tune and need to be reeled back in. This is where breathing on purpose comes in. It’s a direct line of communication to the deepest layers of our nervous system.
Learning to tune in to and take control of breathing where appropriate provides athletes with a means to alter the course of their autonomic reactions to all stress in real time and over the long term. This could mean easing the jitters before a big game or calming mid-term anxiety that might mess with a player’s overall mental state. It could also be used to aid in recovering lost rest time for teams and athletes who have to travel for games.
This renewed awareness provides an opportunity for athletes to become agents in how, when, and where they distribute their energy. This is not only helpful for being better players on the field, but it also yields the fruit of managing stress outside of athletic events. Every coach knows a talented player who doesn’t have their head together won’t last under pressure. Volitional breathing, aka breathing on purpose, is an easy access panel to the vital systems that turn what is usually the luck of the draw into a learnable skill set.
Eight Year Olds, Dude
When it comes to applying breathing techniques, whether in a performance environment or as a simple health practice, far too often, they are far too complex. Confusing jargon, misappropriated lingo, and a lack of attention to how physical skills are developed in humans are all to blame for the lack of broad scaling of breathing techniques into performance-based environments. Additionally, time and resources are already often stretched thinner than a Parisian runway model. Even with those weaknesses, breathing techniques are remarkably efficacious for most people under the most controlled conditions. They tend to fall apart when they’re taken out of controlled environments to be used under the pressures of high-demand situations where our athletes are working at the very limits of their capacities.
One limiter I’d like to pay particular attention to is the way breathing techniques are often taught and how that particular approach is an inhibitor that creates unnecessary friction between the practice and the desired state of the end user—in this case, improved performance. I’m a growing fan of ecological approaches to skill acquisition, in no small part due to my friend and jiu-jitsu mentor, Greg Souders of Standard Jiu Jitsu. Most of the time, breathing teachers use an information-processing approach. Phrases like “use your diaphragm,” “belly breathe,” and other ambiguous instructions serve mainly to confuse and are rarely adaptable to live and chaotic environments.
Rather than offering step-by-step cues on how to breathe “properly,” as coaches, we can offer an avenue for athletes to develop a more robust relationship with their internal mechanisms and guide them toward solutions that work for them.
As a brief aside, I don’t want it to seem like I’m criticizing others from some perch of judgment. Not at all. My point of view on this topic has developed from teaching quite literally hundreds of people of various shapes, sizes, and experience levels how to employ breathing techniques. In addition, it had to be done with little time with those people and no promise I would ever see them again. Real learning had to occur for those people to walk away with agency over their own process.We can provide clear constraints to the athlete and then allow them to explore the use of the breathing technique through their own felt experience. Click To Tweet
Instead of step-by-step instructions, which will create a fragile architecture for these techniques and thus reduce their long-term efficacy, we can provide clear constraints to the athlete and then allow them to explore the use of the tool through their own felt experience. This creates a nearly instantaneous dialogue and leads to faster and deeper learning. You’ll know if your cues are working because an eight-year-old will pick up what you’re putting down.
Easy as 1, 2, 3
Over the last decade or so, many cues for breathing have come and gone, but three have really seemed to stick. These help direct attention to immediate tasks that have proven to generate tangible changes in behavior both in controlled environments that are off the field of play and during the unpredictability that comes with live action. These cues are best deployed in more controlled situations, like sport practice warm-ups or strength and conditioning sessions. This gives athletes an opportunity to get familiar with the language and adapt their attention appropriately. That way, when under stress, they can reliably use breathing for its intended purpose—to change how they are thinking, feeling, and ultimately performing.
Cue #1: Breathe on purpose.
Umm, duh. Right? “Breathe on purpose” is a cue to simply do that—no instructions about how deep, how long, or how frequent. Just attend to the fact. This alone shifts behavior. In fact, in his seminal study on volitional breathing, Dr. Jose Herrero showed that simply attending to one’s own breathing had beneficial effects on the coordination of brain activity.The simple cue of ‘breathe on purpose’ gets athletes to momentarily direct their attention to their internal dialogue so they can make adjustments if necessary. Click To Tweet
Using this cue under moments of intense stress gets the athlete to momentarily attend to their own embodied sense of their internal state and, if need be, do something to alter it. This simple cue gets athletes to momentarily direct their attention to their internal dialogue so they can make adjustments if necessary. For example, your star jiu-jitsu athlete steps up to the mat for their first match of the black belt world championship looking visibly stiff and stressed. You can say, “Breathe on purpose!” as a short, direct message that brings awareness to their need to self-regulate and, at the same time, gives them a route for doing so with immediate effect. Nothing fancier is required to get the outcome, and in fact, more detailed information may only result in confusion.
Cue #2: Fill the bucket.
Diaphragm, shmiaphragm. Is it an important muscle? Yes. Does it do all kinds of cool physiological stuff that we’d die without? Yes. Does getting better at using it improve all kinds of important energy system applications and create structural stability? Again, yes! Do athletes know how to feel it? No. Is it a good use of already limited training time for most to pursue it as a completely separate endeavor? Usually not. Does internal focus actually build robust skills that will stand up to the rigors of competition and life? The research says a resounding NO.
So, when teaching athletes proper breath mechanics, keep it super simple. If you fill a five-gallon bucket with water, it fills from the bottom to the top and out the sides. Simply instruct your athletes to do the same. This can be applied in any situation where they need to:
- Calm down.
- Get stable.
- Get focused.
- Address an injury.
- Improve spinal mobility.
Let your imagination run wild. The point is that it’s a simple verbal cue the athlete can create a direct connection to in order to alter their breath mechanics and change their felt sense. This, in turn, changes their psychological and emotional interaction with their environment.
Cue #3: Move the A.
To be more specific, the “A” is actually the infrasternal (ISA) angle at the bottom of the anterior portion of the rib cage. But who cares—we’re talking about getting athletes to change behavior, right? Acute ISAs are a real issue in athletic populations.
Sometimes, that’s an appropriate adaptation, but what we want is to have some reserve range of motion so we aren’t caught unprepared by sport or life. Cueing the athlete to “open and/or close the A” is an easy way to see what their limitations are in terms of whether or not they have access to lateral rib motion and thoracic extension.
These three that I’ve shared with you now are by no means the be-all and end-all: Coach, if you find something that works better, for god sake, please email me, and don’t just lambast this article to your three followers on Reddit. If you use them regularly and integrate them with other skills and drills the athletes already do, I promise you, you will see success. For more on the details of that deployment, check out the articles I’ve written on specific techniques for:
Most of the time, our breathing is a happy accident of biological design. It just kind of happens for us, and everything seems to work out pretty well both on and off the field. There is most certainly a wave of popularity in the sports performance world regarding the deployment of breathing techniques for recovery and performance enhancement. Most, though, require time, energy, and focus that neither coaches nor athletes frequently possess.While the deep process of volitional breathing is truly a remarkable symphony of chemistry that is just shy of a miracle, treating it with a much more benign attitude makes it more accessible. Click To Tweet
While the deep process of volitional breathing is truly a remarkable symphony of chemistry that is just shy of a miracle, treating it with a much more benign attitude makes it more accessible. Then, the magic of the practice can simply express itself. I, for one, am excited that there’s so much renewed interest in breathing techniques as viable avenues for athlete health especially.
With all of that said, it is essential we don’t blow so much smoke up the proverbial skirt of the whole thing that it’s inaccessible to those it’s intended for. In other words, just breathe on purpose and let the games begin.
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