We often only start to thinking about breathing, or breathing better, when we’re trying to do something we think we should be capable of, yet find ourselves breathless, then wondering what’s wrong.
It could be breathlessness from doing an athletic activity that others seem to be doing with ease, but when you try to do it, too quickly you run out of breath. People usually interpret this as a sign of poor fitness. It could be breathlessness from doing an ordinary household task that otherwise should not make a person feel winded. This could be a warning sign of disease.
The problems is that when we need or want to do a more vigorous activity than the body is currently used to, our respiration is not ready to keep up. We might say that we lack breathing fitness or that breathing seems to be the limitation to doing more. It is possible to be fit in some ways and not in others. One can lift big weights but not be capable of doing much aerobic work*. Any activity that requires a higher sustained heart rate and respiration will require more breathing fitness. Breathlessness is a sign that this part of the system is not developed proportionally.
* If you think about it, obese people are actually carrying around very heavy loads all the time, more than most exercising people could ever handle. But the rest of their performance system is severely under-developed.
The Purpose Of Correct Breathing
What most people may not realize is that there are many different ways to breathe, or they don’t seem to care. There are correct ways to breathe and incorrect ways to breathe, depending on the circumstances. There are different ways to breathe for different situations humans face, from terrified survival to happy arousal, from sleeping, to sitting, to walking, to running. Obviously, if you are breathing right now, no matter if it is correct or incorrect for your circumstance, it is one of the ways you can breathe, and it is enough to keep you alive at this moment. But it may not be the best way to breathe, for the situation you are in right now. And it might not be enough to meet your long-term needs for staying healthy.
Taking in the big picture, breathing is the start of the process that brings oxygen into the cells of the body and removes wastes from them. When there is abundant respiration (from correct breathing), the cells are well-supported, able to refresh from stress, able to repair from damage, able to stay strong and resist disease. When there is scarce respiration (from chronic incorrect breathing), the cells are not well-supported, they don’t recovery completely from stress, they don’t keep up with damage repair, and so become more vulnerable to disease and premature death.
And, I haven’t even mentioned all the immediate, physical and cognitive advantages of breathing better!
The breathing specialists I’ve been been studying seem to be in consensus that by far, most people are not breathing correctly in the way that supports ordinary every day activity, nor for sleeping, which then means they are not breathing in a way that support disease prevention and longevity. But people don’t know this is a problem until, years later, the unrepaired damage to their cells throughout the body reaches critical mass and the symptoms of disease start to be felt somewhere inside.
For those who don’t try to exercise, they might not notice until much later that their poor breathing patterns have been, for decades, starving their cells of oxygen and neglecting waste removal, and now the situation is dire.
For those who are trying to exercise, breathlessness can be an early warning sign that their normal breathing patterns outside of exercise are likely incorrect.
What this breathlessness points to is not the need for more exercise to get those cells more oxygenated an hour or so a day. Actually, normal daily breathing needs to be corrected first. The default pattern of breathing (for sleep, sitting and walking about in daily life) needs to be corrected so that the cells are being abundantly supplied and served outside of exercise time. During all those hours of non-exercise breathing the cells throughout the body are being prepared to handle more exercise later. This is when resources are being built up so that the person can workout to a their actual potential.
The mistake many people make is that when they run into breathlessness in their exercise, they just try to exercise more, hoping more work will result in more fitness which will result in less breathlessness. Or they try to work on their breathing technique only for that exercise, not addressing it in normal daily life. But that is not the best way to go about fixing this.
The Work Outside The Workout
Let’s think about this in a closely related topic: correct posture.
If one has poor posture in normal daily life, in sitting and standing and walking, it is going to lead to problems in the spine, hips, legs, shoulders, etc. If this person goes into some athletic activity which requires better posture, they are at a disadvantage if they are training the muscle control and tone for good posture only during the hour or two workout, then de-training those muscles in during the other 14 hours of their day as they slip back into their poor default posture. At best, they are going to acquire good posture very slowly. More likely, they simply will not be able to maintain good posture very long in their athletic activity, and not at all in daily life. The good posture muscles will simply fatigue too soon and no neural preference can be established.
If you want good posture in your athletic activity, you need to work on good posture outside of your activity. That’s where the neural control and muscle tone are developed enabling that posture to hold up for hours and hours of activity. Good posture needs to become a habit at all times, not just a few hours a week.
It’s essentially the same for breathing. If you have poor breathing pattern outside of athletics, good breathing is simply not going to be able to hold up well in the athletic activity, even when you concentrate on it carefully. The automatic neural control and muscle tone you need in the athletic activity is mostly built outside that activity.
Practice That Leads To Habit
It really helps to get educated about how breathing works (more on that later), and what correct breathing is and why it should be done that way. Then you start to practice correct breathing consciously, developing a conscience about breathing correctly, because now you know there are consequences to breathing incorrectly, and you know you don’t want those. It helps to cultivate a healthy aversion to poor breathing.
You need to learn how breath in the deeper diaphragmatic way (more on that later). The neural pattern needs to be worked on persistently so that this becomes the preferred way to breathe. And the muscles that support this breathing pattern need to become strong so that they can keep working all the time (when this breathing pattern is appropriate for the situation, which is most of the time). This is what breath training will do for you.
Then throughout your day, you more and more often check in with your breathing, and make corrections to it. Every time you make a correction, this strengthens that neural circuit for correct breathing. The more corrections you make, the stronger it gets (so don’t be upset if you have to make many corrections!). Over time, even just a few weeks, you start to develop the habit for breathing this way. Your nervous system begins to form a preference, and it eventually becomes your new default (automatic) way of breathing. And all the while, the specific muscles behind this breathing pattern will get stronger.
Then, when you go into your athletic activity, that superior breathing pattern has been refreshing your body outside of practice time, thus making you more prepared to go into the practice and work harder, much more comfortably (in terms of breathing) than you were able to before. You then find yourself to be a breathful athlete, rather than a breathless one – not (only) because you worked harder in training, but that you worked on breathing smarter outside of training.
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