As promised, this is the follow up to our last tip on relaxing tension in our bodies when training and racing. Today we’re focusing solely on breathing - something that may sound pretty silly to some of us, but I promise it can significantly improve our performance. Practiced in daily life, this can also help reduce stress and tension almost immediately.
And that’s the whole idea of what I’m about to tell you. As much as possible, our goal should be to breathe deeply and with our bellies (our diaphragms), not our chests. This isn’t something that comes naturally, especially in heightened states of stress that come when we’re pushing hard in our sports. Really hard efforts - and I’m talking race-pace and above - are pretty uncomfortable and bring most of us very close to a state of fight-or-flight response. With all of the focus it takes to keep the pedal to the metal, there’s not much left over for conscious thought. In that state we quickly revert to habits built up during both sport and daily life.
Therein lies the habit that most of us build on a daily basis - we breathe very shallow and with our chests. Sitting at our desks at work, focusing (or not) during meetings, driving our cars - all of these situations typically lead us to forget about our breathing and fall into shallow chest breathing. This builds up habit and leads to the same type of breathing when we’re exercising and could really use the extra oxygen. And there’s an extra rub here; When we breathe shallow and rapidly, the oxygen sensors in our lungs perceive this as a panic state. This signal is fed back to our brains, which are already occupied with trying to focus past pain or discomfort while pushing towards that all-out effort.
So how do we fix this bad habit? Easy! We flip the situation around and a build up a strong good habit to replace the bad one. It’s as simple as reminding ourselves to breathe deep with our bellies as much as possible in regular day-to-day life.
Here’s how to do it:
To get the feeling of it first, place one hand on your chest and one on your belly.
Push your belly out just as you start to breath in slowly. Feel your breath fill up your lungs and feel them push down and into your belly. Continue breathing in until just before your chest would have to expand. (So we should only really feel the hand on our belly move).
Pause briefly and then slowly exhale. Use your belly pulling in to push the air out of your lungs. Exhale completely so your lungs will be empty and ready to bring in a full breath of fresh air on the next inhale.
Repeat. Once you have the feeling for the movement of the breath, it’s not necessary to use your hands on your anymore.
You should notice a calming effect almost immediately. Remember this, as it can be a great stress-reducing trick any time we’re feeling tension or anxiety. Most of us don’t even realize how much tension we carry around on a daily basis.
It's as simple as this.
The goal is to do this as much as we possibly can in daily life - I find a post-it note on my computer monitor is a great reminder. This should become our default way of breathing. Making this our habit when we’re not exercising will go a long ways to make it our habit when we are. Once we know how to belly breathe, making it happen during sport is as easy as a quick thought reminder. When we’re digging deep in a workout, a hard ride or a race, getting the extra oxygen and relaxation that comes with belly breathing is a huge help.
I know this will make a difference in your performance and health. Let me know how it works for you.
Here are a couple videos that help demonstrate the concept.