Breathing Basics: Advice from Spartan Race Director of Sport, Joe DI

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By Joe DI, Spartan Director of Sport

Consider a few things:

  • Breathing has been around way longer than we have been modern humans.
  • Breathing is something every body will figure out, no matter how dysfunctional it is.
  • However we choose to do it, we breathe 20,000 times per day.

Breathing is becoming a “trendy” subject, which is a good thing I guess, because most people are pretty bad at it.

To understand breathing, it is important to understand that breathing, perhaps more than any other system, is tightly entwined with the autonomic nervous system. Every inhalation is essentially an expression of the sympathetic, “fight or flight” nervous system. Every exhalation then, is an expression of the parasympathetic “rest and digest” system.

When we get stressed for any reason, we activate our “fight or flight” response. If we are chronically stressed, and most of us are, we are going to severely bias that branch of the nervous system, and indirectly, the muscles that control inhalation. Our postural muscles slowly adapt to make this dysfunctional breathing easier, which leads to bad posture—a round back and forward head.

When the sympathetic nervous system dominates, breaths are much shallower because the body is working to increase blood pressure and pulse in response to the stress. Less air volume enters the body and the lungs expand less. This in turn, decreases the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, decreases the reliance on a strong expiratory system, and decreases the need for the muscles of the torso to remain mobile to support an expanding diaphragm and rib cage.

All this is to say, the best thing we can do to help our breathing is to relax. Focus on taking deeper breaths, always emphasizing exhalations, listen to soothing music, take walks in the woods, do yoga, meditate, and practice forgiveness.

To kick start your breathing habits, and make sure your body does “remember” how to do it right, try this activation:

  1. Shut your mouth. Nostril breathing is far more difficult to do in a sympathetically dominant state. I’ve taken this to the next level with myself, and many of my athletes, running 3-5 miles with my mouth full of water.
  2. Breathe into your entire body. Do not breathe into your chest. Do not breathe into your belly. I want 360 degree expansion of the torso and I am particularly focused on the back.
  3. Try the following:

[1.] Grab onto a pole, squat rack, or TRX strap at chest height.

[2.] Keep your hands where they are, and drop into a squat so that your arms are outstretched and over your head, and your back round with your butt close to the floor.

[3.] Take 20 slow breaths in this position, or as many as you can without passing out, emphasizing exhalation and breathing into and expanding your back. Repeat in the morning, at night, whenever you are stressed, and as part of your warm up.

Don’t have anything to hold onto? Give these breathing exercises a try: