Breathe- Performance and Your Nervous System

Walk inside your story and own it. Breathe it in.


And then pause.

Breathe again.

Repair your world.



We have told you before and will tell you again: We want you to train hard and train smart. This will lead to you getting stronger and more powerful.  We want to build up your tolerance, endurance, and capacity.

We want you to be able to produce strength in all ranges. We want your joints to be able to do everything they are made to do.

We want your story as an athlete to be full of adventure.

But one part of the system that is often ignored: the breath. Breathing is the most fundamental movement pattern we have. Your story is built upon it, driven by it, and affected by it.

How we breathe and how we feel are intimately connected. Slow, rhythmic breathing can quiet your inner storms.  Paying attention to your breath can allow space for clarity. It can allow room to calm your heart and listen to what lives deep down.

So this month, remember what you carry inside of you. Be still enough to hear it.

Sit down and observe your inhale and exhale. Normal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing, involves synchronized motion of the upper rib cage, lower rib cage, and abdomen. It requires the diaphragm muscles to work adequately.  Abnormal breathing, known as thoracic breathing, involves breathing from the upper chest. You would see greater upper rib cage motion, compared to the lower rib cage. Abnormal breathing can also be only “belly breathing” where you don’t use your ribs and diaphragm much, and only use your lower belly.

Athletes have this ability to function with a pattern that is “abnormal” or “dysfunctional.” You may be able to perform well enough without paying attention to breathing/range of motion/recovery...the list goes on.

But what if you did pay attention? What if you could improve your breathing mechanics?

We are not suggesting that you may have “bad” breathing techniques, but what we are saying is that you may be able to improve your awareness of your breath, and work on your breathing as you would any other exercise.

Big change can lie in the detail.

And if it did make a difference, think about what this could do for your state of mind.  Think about what this could do for your performance. Breathing patterns influence hip, shoulder, and spinal position.  It is a huge leak of potential to not be able to fix your spine. When you are biking, or skiing, or running, or climbing, you need to be able to move fluidly, and then brace your trunk. This needs to happen over and over. You need to quickly move from fluid to fixed.

So, if you wanted to pay attention to the breath, what would you look for?


In general, the innermost layers of the abdominal wall consisting of the transverse abdominis and internal obliques play a very important role. They create what is called the Zone of Apposition with the diaphragm. This zone acts as a traction area allowing the dome position required of the diaphragm so it can exert its force on the rib cage for breathing instead of the spine. This ZOA is required for efficient breath. When the belly is left to “fall out,” there is no resistance against which the diaphragm can act to properly change the form of the chest wall. The ZOA is also supported by other muscles like the hamstrings and hip adductors.


An ideal breathing pattern should involve the diaphragm descending in the caudal direction (towards your tailbone), with elastic recoil promoting an upward motion upon exhalation. As a result, the organs shift down as well, and the abdominal wall expands in all directions. Your diaphragm and pelvic floor work together during every breath. If the diaphragm is not working properly, then the pelvic floor can suffer. This means that awareness of the breath is extremely important for any new mom, or anyone with a pelvic floor issue.


Characteristics of optimal breathing (at rest):  are that it is diaphragmatic, nasal (inhalation and exhalation), smooth, deep, even, quiet and free of pauses.


From a muscular perspective, we see an alternating dance of muscle activity. Inspiration requires concentric diaphragm and pelvic floor activity, which compresses the abdominal cylinder to establish intra-abdominal pressure.  Ab wall expansion occurs through eccentric activity of the abdominal muscles, quadratus lumborum, spinal extensors, and hip external rotators. Your belly does not simply fall out; you are eccentrically contracting muscles, making room for the diaphragm that is moving downwards. When we exhale, the reverse occurs: the diaphragm and pelvic floor eccentrically return to their starting position and the ab wall concentrically tightens up.


The diaphragm’s mechanical action and respiratory advantage depends on its relationship and anatomic arrangement with the rib cage. Remember, the zone of apposition has anatomic importance because it is controlled by the abdominal and oblique muscles and directs diaphragmatic tension.


The alignment of the rib cage should ideally correspond to the position of the pelvis. When the thoracic spine is erect, the rib cage is positioned parallel to the pelvis. This alignment of the thorax allows for the diaphragm to act in a caudal (towards the tailbone) direction, as a piston against the pelvic floor. This relationship is very important.


The lungs occupy a 3-dimensional space in the thoracic cavity, and when this space changes shape to cause air movement, it changes shape 3-dimensionally. An inhalation involves the chest cavity increasing its volume from top-to-bottom, from side-to-side and from front-to-back, and an exhale involves a reduction of volume in those same three dimensions.


If you have a suboptimal ZOA, this could lead to:  increased extension, or back bending, through the lower spine. This is accompanied by a front chest that is opened up in a state of hyperinflation, a mid back that is flattened, and an excessively rounded upper back near the base of the neck.  If you have a suboptimal ZOA, you may be breathing more with your thoracic area, which is produced by the accessory muscles of respiration (including sternocleidomastoid, upper trapezius, and scalene muscles), dominating over your lower rib cage and abdominal motion.


If these patterns continue, it can lead to an inability to create stiffness in the trunk. Do you feel like you have a hard time bracing?  Can you create a stiffness in your lumbar spine?


Remember, being able to move from fluid to fixed is an ability that every athlete should have. If this is something you struggle with, it is worth looking to the breathe. Your story as an athlete can change just with a bit of awareness in this area.

Find a bit of stillness. Practice your breathing.


Normal respiration should occur through the nose.  Breathing through the nose has many benefits: The hairs in the nose filter the air to keep the lungs free of particles.  The turbinates in the nose warm the air prior to entering the lungs.  There are receptors in the nose that relax the body and tells it that it’s OK to run your immune system, digestive system, and hormonal system.


Slow, controlled breathing is not only relaxing, it's been scientifically proven to affect the heart, the brain, digestion, the immune system.  Slow breathing means different things to different people. For many, they think they need to breathe very deeply. However, deep breathing can actually be over-breathing, and it can quickly cause hyperventilation. This is an excessive rate or depth of breathing that causes abnormally low carbon dioxide levels in the body. It is more about the timing of the breathe. Slow breathing is what is most calming.

Start with 10 minutes a day. Stay conscious and aware of how you are breathing. Breath through the nose. Let yourself be inside your own story.


Most people breathe twice the optimal volume of air. Many people think that healthy breathing means a high volume of air filling the lungs, emptying the lungs with huge exhales, and a lot of movement. At rest, including during sleep, a normal and healthy breath size is only one-eighth to one-tenth of total lung capacity.

Physiologically normal, healthy breathing at rest is 8 to 12 breaths per minute, and very small, soft and gentle breathing, with small movement of the upper abdominal area and lower ribs, with no sound to it. Of course, the breath will need to be deeper during exercise, but it will happen naturally. Your body just increases breathing volume and rate. You don’t have to go, ‘I’m going for a run, so now I’m going to breathe more.’

So next time you feel yourself becoming anxious, instead of taking a few deep breaths, try a few slow, steady, gentle ones.

  • When you stop mouth breathing and learn to bring your breathing volume toward normal, you have better oxygenation of your tissues and organs, including your brain

  • You breathe to remove excess Co2, but it’s still important that your breathing volume is normal, to maintain ideal Co2 levels in your lungs. Lack of Co2 constricts your blood vessels and detrimentally affects your heart function

  • The heavier you breathe, the less oxygen that’s actually delivered throughout your body due to lack of carbon dioxide, which causes your blood vessels to constrict (When blood Co2 drops, at least two major changes occur in the body. First, certain blood vessels constrict causing less oxygen to reach the brain, heart and extremities. Secondly, the blood acidity changes, causing less oxygen to reach the tissues and certain ions to flood body tissues. These changes account for a wide array of symptoms that are virtually identical to the symptoms of anxiety. The change in blood acidity is thought to play a role in sensitizing the nerves.

  • Hyperventilation, or overbreathing, means that you expel carbon dioxide (Co2) faster than your body is producing it. This usually occurs with rapid, shallow "chest" breathing, but can also occur with deep breathing.

  • Slow, diaphragmatic, 360 degree breathing is the goal



Breathing and the nervous system:


The sympathetic nervous system is mainly activated by stress and pre­pares the body for a fight. It is a survival mechanism that increases heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar. If the sym­pathetic nervous system becomes overburdened by prolonged stress, it will wear on your body. The parasympathetic nervous system, however, has a calming influ­ence. It lowers the heart rate and blood pressure and simultaneously promotes digestion and the uptake of nutrients. It is primarily during rest, eating and sleeping that the parasympathetic nervous system dominates and coordinates the body’s repose and regeneration.


Often our sympathetic nervous systems get too ramped up, and we don’t activate our parasympathetic systems enough.

Let’s consider one of the most fundamentally important ele­ments in the parasympathetic nervous system, the vagus nerve, which is the most complex of all of our nerves. In Latin, Vagus means “wander­ing”. It is termed so because from its origin in the brain stem it spreads nerve fibers to the throat and upper body, and through these nerve fib­ers signals wander to and from the body and the brain. In short, the vagus nerve connects the brain to everything from the tongue, pharynx, vocal chords, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines to different glands that produce enzymes and hormones, influencing digestion, me­tabolism, and much more.

The key to managing your state of mind and stress level lies in being able to activate the calming parasympathetic pathways of your nervous system. By actively focusing on your breath and the movements of your diaphragm, you can influence the system enormously through the vagus nerve that spreads from your brain to your lungs, heart and other or­gans. Try to activate your own vagus nerve. Simply try to calm your breath down. Breathe in and out through your nose in a quiet, controlled way . Can you feel how your heart rate drops and your mind relaxes instantly?


Retraining your breath:



So, the goals of breathing retraining include relaxing and stabilizing the breathing pattern with the intention of:

  • Moving toward restoration of proper function of the nervous system

  • Leaving fight-or-flight mode if it's not appropriate

  • Reducing heart and breathing rates

  • Relaxing muscles

  • Mitigating anxiousness, hyperventilation and stress


Tips for Breathing Retraining:


  • If you can, breathe through your nose, which increases resistance and helps to slow breathing. If you can’t, breathe through pursed lips.

  • Don’t be too concerned with technique. Just be aware of your breathing and attempt to breathe in a way that is restful for you. Simple awareness of how you’re breathing is often all that is needed to slow down and to encourage healthy breathing.

  • While fist practicing, use a mirror to check for tension or movement in the face, jaw, shoulders or chest.

  • Hold a normal breath for a count of five, breathe out slowly, hold to five, then resume easy breathing. (This can help increase your tolerance to Co2. You always need a certain amount of Co2 for normal functioning. If you have normal Co2, you will have a good tolerance to it, which translates into a higher breath-hold time).

  • Practice this when speaking. Relax your muscles. Go more slowly and smoothly. Use short sentences with gentle breathing through your nose; no gasping or gulping air. Seek natural pausing places to breathe gently.

  • As this becomes more natural, you will automatically use these techniques during exercise

  • Remember that we are not saying that you are correct or incorrect with your breathing habits, but rather, attention to your breath is the important part


Breathing during exercise:



Let’s talk about your tolerance to carbon dioxide. When your body and brain have a normal tolerance of Co2, your breathing will be light and smooth as your body is not constantly trying to get rid of too much Co2. Contrary to popular belief, the primary stimulant signaling your body to take a breath is not lack of oxygen, rather it is an excess Co2.

You always need a certain amount of Co2 for normal functioning. If you have normal Co2, you will have a good tolerance to it, which translates into a higher breath-hold time. Also, when you exercise, your body generates more carbon dioxide, and if you have good tolerance to Co2, your breathing will remain much lower than someone who has a poor tolerance to Co2.


A higher Co2 tolerance will equate to a more regulated breathing pattern while under stress. It will allow us to preserve the power output of our breathing musculature for longer periods. Improved Co2 tolerance will also allow us to regulate our breathing so that our bodies have more Co2 available during exertion to buffer elevated acid levels. One of the greatest benefits of improved Co2 tolerance is the reduction of breathlessness while we train. It opens the door for us to train harder and longer without that sense that we have to stop to get a breath.


Again, you can increase your ability to tolerate Co2 with breathing retraining. If you can slow down your breathing to about 8-12 breaths per minute, you will begin to increase your tolerance to Co2. After you have tried at rest to calm and slow down your breath, in and out of your nose, then try to engage in moderate exercise in the same manner.

Breathing influences our movement.  


The diaphragm has a dual function as both a respiratory and postural muscle. The dual role of the diaphragm is essential for spinal stability and all resultant movements, especially for the complex tasks that comprise athletic performance.  

You don’t own a movement unless you can breathe at the pinnacle of the movement, when max mobility and/or stability is needed.  Practice breathing over a brace. Practice getting into bird dog or plank or the bottom of a push up and hold it and try to perform diaphragmatic breaths. You will feel that you cannot only breathe into your belly, because then you will not be able to fix your lumbar spine. You will also feel that if you only breathe with your upper chest, then the same will happen. Practice 360 degree expansion of the diaphragm. This will allow for a static position of the spine.


If you forget your story, slow down. Your breath will find it’s way in. And it’s way out.

To not pause and think about what it is you love, would be a life that is very much missing the point.

Breathe. Stand still for a minute. Remember what you are looking for.

-Laurel Lippard




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