The main point of breathing is bringing oxygen to the cells, and removing carbon dioxide waste from them.
Breathlessness is one of the expressions of stress felt by the body when the cells are not getting the gas exchange they need for their level of exertion.
When we experience breathlessness, the attention tends to focus on the lungs themselves because that is where we’re likely feeling the sense of limitation. But the lungs are just one part of a whole system that determines how breathless or breathful we feel. The limitation that causes that sense of breathlessness may or may not be in the lungs themselves.
Where Is Your Limitation?
Let’s look at the whole system of how air is exchanged and see where restrictions could occur…
Air goes in through the nose and mouth, down the bronchial tubes into the lungs and it comes out the same way. There is particular advantage for using the nasal passage for breathing because of its affect on triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (the calming system) and triggering the release of nitric oxide to mix with incoming air which helps the tubes open up even more. There is a question of how much you are able to use nasal breathing.
The lungs have a maximum potential volume. That volume is determined not only by the expansion of their external surface area, but in how vast is the internal system of pipes and alveoli sacs are that can be filled with air. There is a question of how much internal volume is available and how much of it you are using.
The lungs have a particular three dimensional shape and not all sections of the lungs are equal in their capacity to exchange air. The lower part of the lungs is larger and more vascular than the upper part – in a single breath it can process three times as much air as the upper part. There is a question of whether you are using that lower part of the lungs as much as possible.
The lungs are located inside the thoracic cavity, enclosed on three sides by the ribs and the thoracic spine. This hard structure can expand a bit, allowing the lungs to expand to the the sides and above, but not much. Below the lungs is the soft diaphragm muscle and below that are the soft organs which can be compressed or moved around quite a lot. That is the easy direction for the lungs to expand, but this may no longer be the habitual pattern. There is a question of how much you are expanding the lungs in that direction.
The diaphragm is a muscle and there are other muscles around it and below it, and there are muscles around the thoracic cavity which activate to expand or compress the space around the lungs, decreasing pressure or increasing pressure so that air comes in and out of the lungs. There is a question of how suitable the particular arrangement of breathing muscles are, how automatic they function, and how fit these muscles are for the constant work they need to do while you are in physical exertion.
There is the rate of breathing – how many breaths taken per minute. And there is the the ‘tidal volume’ – the amount of air exchanged in each breath. The rate and the volume will happen automatically, or you can override and control these variables consciously. If you have good habits or are well-trained, you can let the rate of breathing be automatic in response to your physical exertion. If not, then you may need to learn to control the rate and volume manually until those good responses can be formed and habituated.
This image used by licensed permission from 123rf.com
There is the health of the micro structures of the lungs, the alveoli which are the transfer point for gases entering and exiting the blood, and the capillary system that delivers blood to those alveoli. There is a question of how well those micro-structures are functioning. Has air quality, disease or neglect caused their capacity to diminish?
There is the whole cardio vascular system that delivers blood from the lungs down to the cells. There is a question of how fit these muscles (more than just the heart) and tubes are, and how finely they are distributed down to reach each and every cell, and supply them abundantly.
There is the fitness of the blood itself, its ability to absorb oxygen, transport it to the cells, absorb carbon dioxide and bring that back to the lungs. There is a question of how healthy the blood is.
There is the hormone (endocrine) system which controls the signals for absorbing and releasing the oxygen and carbon dioxide in the cells and moving them across the membranes to and from the blood. There is a question of how well this hormone system is responding to your physical exertion.
Breathing easier may not come from simply exercising more, if that exercise does not address the particular ways in which your respiration is being restricted.
Sleep quality affects your respiration quality by allowing your body to replenish hormone supplies, repair cellular structures, remove waste and reduce inflammation in and around cells.
Nutrition plays a huge role in making breathing easier on the cellular level by supplying the ingredients which make all those vital chemical reactions happen.
Drinking enough water will improve the flow of blood and aid in chemical reactions, as well as keep the lungs moist.
How you breathe at night while sleeping – rate, volume and in what part of the lungs – and how you breath all throughout the day affects how you feel and how you breath during exercise.
Beyond or even before you add more exercise, having a lifestyle which allows the hard structures and the soft muscles and tissues to frequently move in their fullest range will improve breathfulness. In other words, it is advantageous to have the body do a lot of different kinds of physical work to get your whole body moving in a wide variety of ways.
Obviously, your habituated pattern for how air is exhaled and inhaled into the lungs matters a lot because that will affect the respiratory structures from the lungs all the way down to the capillaries. Specialists say that most adults in our modern world are not doing this well, so there is likely room to improve. We’ll talk about this in the next post on this topic!
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I think that developing a relaxed and effective breathing pattern (rate, depth, expulsion) has been one of the most difficult aspects of developing my ability to swim comfortably. I am finding that land based breathing exercises (such as the ones described in The Oxygen Advantage) are helpful. The problem as usual is that there are so many motor activities vying for your attention while swimming that it can be difficult to maintain focus on your breathing. This has repeatedly brought home to me the importance of learning to focus, which may be the most important aspect of learning to swim well.