“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
The first thing we do when we come into this world is take a breath.
The last thing we do when we leave it is take a breath.
Yet, breathing is something we rarely think about.
Our body does it for us.
Upwards of 20,000 times a day.
But breathing is the superpower that can unlock several doors for an athlete.
Better Emotional Regulation
Better Bracing For Weight-Lifting
Living In The Present
Better Mental Health
Throughout a practice or competition an athlete is riding waves of emotion.
Touchdown = happiness.
Missed 4 foot putt = anger.
Breathing changes in response to emotional states, such as sadness, happiness, anxiety, or fear.
The nervous system coordinates most of our emotional responses to the world. Strengthening and balancing the nervous system is a key component to emotional health and homeostasis.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls the inner organs of the body of which humans have no conscious control. This includes the heartbeat, digestion, and usually breathing.
However, with conscious breathing we can turn off auto-pilot and down-regulate from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Every breath comes with a combination of the two. The exhales are parasympathetic, serving as the brake to your heart-rate while the inhales are sympathetic and serve as the accelerator.
To understand why we make poor decisions when we are stressed out, angry, fearful, or in another negative emotional state, we can look at the three parts of the brain.
Parts of the Brain
The Triune Brain model, introduced by physician and neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean, explains the brain in three parts:
Reptilian (brain stem): This innermost part of the brain is responsible for survival instincts and autonomic body processes.
Mammalian (limbic, midbrain): The midlevel of the brain, this part processes emotions and conveys sensory relays.
Neomammalian (cortex, forebrain): The most highly evolved part of the brain, this area controls cognitive processing, learning, memory, and executive decision-making.
The regulation of breath by the brain stem (reptilian) is largely unconscious and this part of the brain is solely interested in keeping the body alive and all systems in balance. When people enter moments where their survival is perceived as threatened, this part of the brain takes over and emotional regulation ceases to exist.
The processing of emotions in the limbic system (mammalian) helps us discern if sensory information is positive or negative.
The senses come through the hypothalamus and instantly send signals to the amygdala to determine if the information coming in is worth getting worked up about.
The hippocampus translates short term memory into long term memory. When the amygdala is activated, it compares what it is receiving from thalamus and compares it with the stored memories in the hippocampus.
Communication is then sent to the thalamus which regulates the ANS and the endocrine system, releasing hormones necessary for fighting, fleeing or freezing (if the response is highly sympathetic).
A good example would be someone accidentally bumping into you.
If you have been pushed in the past and it was life-threatening, you’re going to react based on past experiences.
Lastly, you have the cortex which is in the top, forefront of the brain.
The cognitive centers of the cerebral cortex exert voluntary and intentional control on breathing.
A well-developed pre-frontal cortex allows you to exert executive control over your emotions and respond rather than react.
You react when you get a personal foul.
You react when you forget the play and freeze or when you forget the play and then panic with an ill-advised throw.
You respond when you recognize your heart racing, and you exhale deeply to bring yourself in control of your emotions.
States Vs. Traits
Like I said, your emotions will go up and down throughout the day, match, or practice.
These are emotional states and they are temporary.
Like a tornado eventually passes, so does anger.
However, practicing breathing can help you develop behavioral traits that are long lasting like awareness, confidence, or patience.
These are more like the climate of an area.
The Bahamas are almost always warm, but occasionally have hurricanes pass through.
Conscious regulation of breath allows an athlete to train themselves to have behavioral traits that can cut through emotional states.
Breathing affects an athlete’s ability to move.
When an athlete has poor breathing mechanics, they breath shallow and into their chest. This recruits chest, neck, shoulder, and upper back muscles to act as “accessory” breathing muscles.
This perpetuates chronic stiffness in the musculature of the upper body.
I’m sure you’ve heard to breathe into your belly. While well-intentioned, your belly doesn’t contain your lungs, your rib cage does.
Instead think of breathing using your diaphragm.
When we inhale with our diaphragm, the ribs should externally rotate to make space for our lungs to expand. In order for the lungs to expand, the diaphragm contracts and pushes down towards the abdominal cavity.
When we exhale properly, the ribs should internally rotate and the diaphragm should relax and dome up.
Chronic stress can lead to poor breathing mechanics, but most people just don’t know how to breath properly. Breathing is a movement pattern, just like the lunge is a movement pattern.
Inefficient breathing patterns can result in muscular imbalance, posture, shoulder, and spine mobility.
When an athlete has poor breathing mechanics and breath into their chest it causes their ribs to ride out and up. This leads to a flared ribcage and excessive spinal extension.
The shoulder blade sits on the ribcage, but if it’s flared out that will impact the movement of the entire shoulder girdle.
Any muscular imbalances caused by this can affect the spines ability to twist.
If an athlete squats or runs long distances and has grooved a movement pattern of excessive spinal flexion, they are compromising the integrity of the spinal column.
These are just a few examples of how the way we breathe has a significant reciprocal relationship with our posture and mobility.
Establishing diaphragmatic breathing with better rib cage position and rib movement can allows you to use muscles for their intended purpose.
We know that athletes need to recover.
In order to recover we need to get our CNS to switch to the PNS and stay there as much as possible.
Nearly every system in the body benefits from breathing properly and living in the PNS. Thus, the PNS is associated with “rest and digest.”
The digestive system benefits as the PNS stimulates digestion by increasing blood flow within the digestive tract.
Another benefit is an increase in peristalsis, which causes food and nutrients to be pushed down the intestine and ultimately produce waste.
For any athlete training, they will want all the nutrients they can get from their food.
An added benefit from a body composition standpoint is that the PNS utilizes body fat instead of glucose for fuel (SNS uses glucose).
Within the muscles, the PNS triggers muscle relaxation which allows the body to stretch out and release tension or trigger points.
Within the cardiovascular system, you see the heart rate slows down which is beneficial for people with high blood pressure. This also leads to better Heart Rate Variability (HRV) which is a great way to measure the health of someone.
Your heart rate is measured on how many times it beats per minute. Heart rate variability measures the time between beats. But these beats aren’t always evenly paced out. Rather, there is variation among the intervals between your heartbeats.
As explained earlier, the exhale is the brake and the inhale is the accelerator. So you should notice a longer interval on exhales and shorter intervals on inhales. Your HRV might be 0.85 or 1.35. A higher number is an indicator of better recovery.
Between regular exercise which also strengthens the heart muscle and breathing drills, you are training yourself to have a lower heart rate and higher HRV.
High heart rate variability is an indication of cardiovascular and whole body health. It tells us how well we’ve recovered and can even help us understand if it’s unwise to exercise too intensely. In the long run, this prevents you from running yourself or people you coach into the ground.
Use this recovery technique following a hard training session to practice bringing your heart rate down. This directly translates to being able to take yourself from high stress situations outside of the gym into a recovery state as quick as possible.
Every athlete should lift weights.
Within that weight-lifting regiment there will be some variation of squatting and hinging. For the example below, I’ll refer to the back squat.
Here’s where breathing and breath work play a huge role.
When we do heavy barbell work you have to stabilize your core. There is a bar with 100s of pounds resting on your spine. Your core stabilizes your spine. The breath you take prior to the lift should brace your core by breathing in and pushing your belly out in all directions as if you were bracing for a punch.
DO NOT Hollow out your belly. In other core or fitness activities you might want to pull your belly button towards you spine. This is great for activating your transverse-abdominis and showing off your physique (think body builder poses), but it reduces your intra-abdominal pressure (IAP).
To train this pre-lift, place one hand on your stomach and one hand on your ribs. Breath deeply and if you are doing it right you will feel your belly rise and fall and your ribcage expand laterally.
Once you have that feeling down, take a 1/2-3/4 breath in and push your belly out in 360 degrees. This protects the lumbar spine, which is the most susceptible to injury when we are loading hundreds of pounds on our spine.
Execute the rep and at the top you will breath in and repeat the brace. Wearing a belt can be beneficial as it gives the lifter a kinesthetic touchpoint where they can breath into their belt for the brace. It also helps with IAP which can help prevent lower back injuries.
Breathing is done subconsciously, but bracing it not subconscious. Train your breathing to learn what proper breathing mechanics feel like and then train yourself to brace with diaphragmatic breathing.
Mindfulness is a term that is becoming more and more popular.
You can be mindful while you eat.
You can be mindful while engage in conversation.
And you can be mindful when you breath.
Being aware of your breathing is the easiest way to practice mindfulness.
It pulls you into the present moment.
When you focus on your breath you take your focus away from the future and the past.
Fear and anxiety exist in the future when we worry about what will, can, or might happen.
If you fear striking out or shooting an airball, you are well on your way to accomplishing those tasks.
Depression and sadness exist in the past when we think about things we could have or should have done.
In sport, we dwell on past plays, but it’s the best players that are able to forget about the past and focus on the next play.
It is always the present moment and your breath is the one thing you will always have with you in every moment of life.
Staying present allows you to enjoy the moments in life as they are happening.
It allows you to focus on the next pitch, the next shot, the next putt.
Outside of the present moment, nothing else matters.
Athletes deal with a lot of stress.
They undergo an incredible amount of physical stress to train, perform, and compete at high levels year round.
Then there is the mental stress of haters on social media, making 20 million fantasy owners happy, taking care of friends and family financially, and dealing with the press.
They are required to suppress a lot of their emotions because they have to be a paragon of strength.
In 2021, we are looking at the tip of an iceberg when it comes to addressing mental health in the sports arena.
During the MLB winter meetings in 2018, it was revealed that the #5 reason for athletes being on the disabled list (DL) was anxiety.
In 2018, the NBA rolled out a mental health and wellness program for the players.
We are starting to see it talked about and addressed more and more.
But what about at the college and youth levels where there isn’t funding?
Whether you are five years old or a 5-time NBA All-Star, breath-work is something you can do to help with your mental health.
In order for us to live in balance with the people of the world, our nervous system must be balanced.
This article has addressed several ways breathing helped with mental health, here is one more way you can practice breathing so that you can stay in your PNS and handle your emotions better.
Contra-lateral breathing which is also referred to as Nadi Shodhana in yoga.
Nostril dominance changes every one and a half to three hours. This represents an ultradian rhythm which means that it cycles several times throughout the day. This is different from a circadian rhythm that cycles out daily.
The sides of our nostril dominance are contra-lateral with the brain meaning that the right nostril connects with the left hemisphere and visa versa.
Breathing through one side of the nose stimulates the connecting side of the brain, enhancing the functionality of that particular side. You can think of this the same way you think of stretching our strengthening individual sides of the body.
Alternating nostril breathing helps bring the brain into harmony and balance.
Studies have shown that right-nostril breathing increases cognition and left-nostril breathing increases proprioception.
Have you tried adding any breathwork to your training yet? If you found this helpful, please share it with someone who could benefit from better breathing!
Emotional Regulation https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-science-behind-ptsd-symptoms-how-trauma-changes-the-brain/ https://www.news-medical.net/health/What-is-the-Nervous-System.aspx https://medcraveonline.com/MOJAP/MOJAP-03-00108.pdf https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/our-three-brains-the-emotional-brain https://www.khanacademy.org/science/health-and-medicine/executive-systems-of-the-brain/emotion-lesson/v/emotions-limbic-system https://thebrain.mcgill.ca/flash/a/a_04/a_04_cr/a_04_cr_peu/a_04_cr_peu.html https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/the-concept-of-the-triune-brain https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response Mobility https://www.girlsgonestrong.com/blog/strength-training/train-breathing-better-movement/ https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/yoga-mobility-trainer-dana-santas-teaches-pro-athletes-breathe https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3924606/ https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/how-lungs-work https://mobilitymaker.com/programs/ - Breath Better 101 Program Recovery http://infuseyourself.life/your-nervous-system-digestion/ https://ouraring.com/heart-rate-variability-basics/ STERN, EDDIE. ONE SIMPLE THING: a New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life. NORTH POINT FSG, 2020. Bracing http://www.barpathfitness.com/blog/2016/8/24/breathing-and-bracing https://robbwolf.com/2017/02/24/proper-breathing-mechanics-for-bracing/ https://squatuniversity.com/2016/02/12/the-squat-fix-core-stability-proper-breathing/ http://www.biomed.cas.cz/physiolres/pdf/58/58_383.pdf https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2709981 Mental Health https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22869992 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1938166