Endurance activities are aerobic by nature. From an energy perspective, the goal is to constantly supply sufficient oxygen to the muscles so that the energy stores are used most efficiently. We work on building strength and flexibility in the muscles that drive our chosen task, fine tune our equipment, constantly refine our technique and skills and then spend hours upon hours of performing our activity at carefully calculated exertion levels to hone fitness levels. Since breathing is largely an unconscious activity, we usually just assume that driving the body harder will drive the breathing harder, thereby improving aerobic fitness. For the most part, this is a valid assumption, but how much time do most endurance athletes spend on consciously attending to the diaphragm, lungs and actual mechanism of breathing? The ability to improve the quality and efficiency of breathing has a proven physiological basis. However, many of the useful techniques and exercises are more often found in disciplines such as meditation, yoga, tai-chi and other martial arts than in a standard endurance activity training regimen.
The following exercise is designed to enhance your ability to sense how you use your breathing. If one is to improve performance, you first need increased awareness of what you want to improve.
Find a quite place where you can comfortably lie on your back. Bring your attention to your breath. Can you notice rate, depth, ease and what parts of your body move with the breath without changing anything about the breath? Take a couple of breaths while paying attention to your diaphragm and the expansion and collapse of the lower abdomen. Do the same while noticing the rise and fall of the rib cage and upper chest. Do you tend to favor one area over the other? Take turns emphasizing diaphragm then chest with each breath. Rest and take a few normal breaths. Then expand the abdomen and collapse the chest as you inhale a few times, then reverse and inhale while collapsing the abdomen and expanding the chest. Return to normal breathing.
Mentally divide your body into left and right halves. Consciously begin alternating breathing into one side or the other. Once you can feel this differentiation, then attempt direct your breathing on diagonals left to right, top to bottom. Find out how many patterns you can create using these four quadrants. Start the breath in one place and expand it to all other parts in differing patterns. Notice what areas are easy to access and what areas are more difficult. Rest and return to a few normal breaths.
Now mentally form another division between the front and back sides of your body. Repeat the above exercise, this time using the 8 divisions and moving the expansion and collapse of breathing through as many patterns of the 8 divisions as you can create. Return to a few normal breaths whenever you need to.
As a final exercise, inhale partially and hold your breath. Feel the sense of a ball of air held in your torso. Can you move ball of breath around within the divisions that you previously created? Make a few movements of the ‘breath ball’, then exhale and take a few normal breaths between each repetition of the ‘breath ball’ exploration. Start with just the top and bottom divisions and slowly build more complex patterns as you did in the previously. Pay attention to how the spine and ribs shift and roll with the breathing.
Note any areas that have decreased expansion. Are the areas of decreased expansion just stiff, or are they difficult for you to even sense how to move them and incorporate them into your breathing patterns? Relax and return to a normal breathing pattern for 4 or 5 breaths.
Compare how your breathing feels now relative to when you first started the exercise. Make a mental note of the things that caught your attention during this exercise. The next time you are engaged in the aerobic activity of your choice, use this information to help you find ways to maximize your breathing efficiency.
Brian Beatty, PT, CSCS is an avid cyclist, physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist with Balanced Physical Therapy which has offices in Carrboro and Durham. Balanced Physical Therapy specializes in providing expert individual attention to allow clients to achieve maximum potential. 919.942.0240