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Breathing easy: Using your lungs correctly helps unlock your fitness potential

Learning how to breathe fully and effectively is an undervalued practice, writes Sarah Cremen.

Image: Shutterstock/Rido

THE CURRENT STATE of the health and fitness industry can leave a lot to be desired — social media feeds awash with genetically-gifted ‘influencers’ touting their amazing abs and booty workouts, and motivational quotes to the theme of ‘go hard or go home’ or ‘train insane or remain the same’.

It may not be sexy, but in a world of’ fitter, faster, stronger’, learning how to breathe fully and effectively is an undervalued and overlooked practice that is essential to limiting pain and injury, and increasing performance.

Prioritising rest and recovery is a topic for another week, but miss out on it and at best you’ll probably hit a plateau. At worst, you risk serious injury.

Another reason for injury? Our inability to breathe properly. Aside from being essential for life, how we breathe is a huge factor in pain and performance.

Our body’s autonomic nervous system controls our breathing, meaning respiration is effectively regulated by our body without having to consciously think about each inhale and exhale — which is a good thing, considering the average person takes more than 20,000 breaths per day.

So, while our autonomic nervous system allows us to focus on more exciting aspects of life, the lack of consciousness about our breath can also lead to trouble.

Inefficient breathing and dysfunctional breathing patterns result in the inhibition of important core stabilisers, poor movement patterning and postural compensations. In layman’s terms; a slew of issues including weak core, headaches, poor posture, pain and stiffness in necks, shoulders, backs etc.

Considering most of us spend our days going full tilt to achieve our goals, practising controlled breathing and learning how to recondition our respiratory muscles and develop efficient core function not only improves movement quality, it allows our bodies to shift to a parasympathetic state, which optimises our rest and recovery.

The function of our diaphragm is affected by stress — a general term that encompasses physical (training, injury), emotional (relationship, workplace) and lifestyle (sleep, diet, hydration) factors.

The thing about our body’s central nervous system is that it doesn’t differentiate between different types of stress: good or bad.

They all initiate the same response; stimulation of your sympathetic nervous system resulting in increased heart-rate, perspiration, increased blood pressure, muscle tension and shallow, rapid breathing.

The inefficient gas exchange that occurs with such breathing can bring about a shift in the PH of our bodies.

A relatively more acidic PH stimulates production of an inflammatory factor in the body, increases our pain threshold sensitivity and can promote development of painful trigger points in the body. Essentially, it creates a vicious cycle that pushes our bodies further into a state of stress.

Stimulating the sympathetic nervous system isn’t a bad thing, it saves us when we’re facing danger.

However, the body wasn’t built to deal with chronic stress. Walking around in a permanent state of heightened activation is detrimental to our health. So, the ability to calm its effects by moving to a parasympathetic state is equally as necessary. How do we do this? By breathing.

How well we move is reliant on your “true” core function — controlled by your Intrinsic Core Stabilisation System; a group of muscles that form a cylinder-shaped postural support system that uses intra-abdominal pressure to generate force, strength, speed and stamina and more importantly, limit pain and injury. How does one harness the power of this pressure system? By breathing.

How do we breathe properly? For now, start with the breathing drill below:

Relaxed breathing

Position: Sitting, on your back, standing, or walking.
Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth.
Maximally exhale making an “ah” sound.
Close your mouth and silently inhale while counting to four.
Do not exhale — hold for four seconds.
Now exhale through your mouth with an “ah” sound for eight seconds.
Repeat this cycle three more times.

Next week I’ll be covering breathing techniques in greater depth and how to incorporate them into your training regimen to optimise performance.

Sarah Cremen is a personal trainer and physiotherapist based in David Lloyd Riverview in Dublin. For more health and fitness advice and tips, you can follow her on FacebookInstagram or Twitter. Alternatively, you can visit her website.

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