As runners, swimmers, cyclists, and triathletes we're always talking about the next workout, paces we strive to achieve, upcoming races on the calendar. Sometimes we need to, literally, take a breath and think about some very fundamental ways our bodies are working. It's why we are taking the time to write about our most involuntary of actions--breathing--and how it can be trained to help maximize your athletic pursuits.
Many cultures believe the simple process of breathing is the essence of being. As many of you know, in yoga the breath is known as prana, or a universal energy. In our previous post we talked about how sport training should absolutely include work on diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Today, let's talk about the idea of doing more to integrate this "universal energy" with athletic movement.
Isn't it amazing how "hard" some movements are when our breathing isn't connected to that movement? Conversely, how much easier do things feel when we connect and integrate our breathing into all we do?
We believe the integration of the breath with athletic movement may be the most under appreciated and underutilized aspect of moving better and getting stronger. And it's all so simple. The key to utilizing this powerful tool? It begins with AWARENESS. Simple awareness.
Think about the relaxed rhythm you need when swimming to generate efficient and powerful strokes. Integrating the breath is a central component, is it not? Mess up the breath when swimming, and efficiency and smooth easy speed go out the window.
Runners who breathe deeply and diaphragmatically can run at a faster pace with less effort. Breathing deeply, in and out through the nose and mouth not only gets more air into the lower lobes of your lungs, it also helps you maintain better posture and a relaxed composure. The next time you watch a good cyclist climb powerfully yet relaxed, you can be sure proper, rhythmic, deep breathing is part of that easy-seeming form.
How to work on your breathing?
The first step is to simply become mindful and aware of what you are doing and how you're doing it, by integrating the diaphragmatic inhalation/exhalation exercise into your daily routine. It is deceptively simple, but it takes focus and practice.
To begin, lie on your back on the floor. This position creates an enhanced postural awareness. Be sure your pelvis is in a neutral position, and your shoulders are relaxed down and back with palms facing up. Put one hand on the stomach area and the other on the mid chest area. Relax as much as possible, allowing your body to "sink" into the floor. This position of lying on your back creates enhanced postural awareness; however, this exercise can be practiced in other positions.
Start by recognizing (awareness) where the breathing movement is taking place at that moment. Do you recognize which area is moving? Can you feel the movement more under the hand which is on your stomach, or under the one on your chest? Don't make judgments at this point about what is "good" or "bad," or even try to change what you are doing, just observe and become aware of what you are doing, however subtle it might be.
Now that you are aware of what you are doing, you will begin to change and shape your breath. The first step is to focus on extending each EXHALE. That is, each time you exhale, simply try to lengthen how long you breathe out. Next, can you change that exhalation so that the hand over your stomach sinks inward under your hand? Once you start to feel it moving under that hand, try to increase the depth and intensity of the exhalation.
Now that you are feeling your belly sinking to the floor as you exhale, have you also noticed the movement that occurs naturally during the inhalation that follows? Your stomach, which sank during the exhale, is now bulging outward as you inhale. What is happening? It is simple but profound: the diaphragm is descending caudally (toward the pelvis), causing your belly to move outward.
Now that you are breathing diaphragmatically, see if you can both increase and decrease the amplitude of the movements. Remain aware of what is moving. Relax and try to feel the same movements whether you are inhaling a small volume of air, or a larger volume of air. Nice work! Be aware that as you practice, you may find yourself falling back into chest breathing. No worries, pause for a moment and come back to your awareness.
This seemingly simple exercise is the basis for learning a new and powerful way to breathe more deeply and fully. It is a technique that will unleash more powerful athletic movements and performance!
Lastly, for now, as you bring this awareness into your athletic training, be sure to EXHALE on exertion, INHALE on recovery. Be aware when you are holding your breath when you shouldn't be. Breathe deeply.
Take the time to work on your breathing. It's free, you can do it anywhere, and it is the most pleasant of all training exercises.
Every Breath You Take, Part 1: Do You Know How to Breathe? can be found here.