We’ve already discussed how to increase performance with breathing and bracing strategies during movements (I highly recommend checking out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 to get the whole picture), but what about when the training, competition, mission, or workday is over? An inability to shut down, sleep, and recover is not only frustrating to that individual which further amplifies the stress, but is also untapped potential for performance gains. Recovery may be the most important part of your workout.
Stress, both physical and emotional, is powerful when appropriate as the heightened state of the sympathetic nervous system (the “Fight or Flight” state that gets your heart pounding) can increase short-term physical performance. However, those who are in a chronic amped state due to work, rigorous training, competition, or even battle are often unable to efficiently regulate this system and shut it down when necessary. Even chronic pain patients suffer from this. This causes an imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems in which athletes are persistently yoked-up and unable to sleep and recover. We have to get out of this reset baseline in which abnormal starts to feel normal. Self-medicating to sleep is NOT normal.
In normal diaphragmatic breathing, the heart rate accelerates when breathing in and decelerates when breathing out. This Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a glimpse into the balance of the nervous system. When athletes are in a constant state of sympathetic dominance, the heart beats like a drum and does not have a normal variability. This is exacerbated by heavy upper chest and neck breathing (discussed in detail in Part 1) and poor diaphragmatic activity resulting in chronic over-breathing. Loss of HRV is even found to be predictive of mortality in those with heart conditions.
The harder we train or stress about work, the less variable this system becomes as the sympathetic state dominates and our athletes and soldiers cannot down-regulate and adapt to these stressful stimuli. The result is what you really care about: poor adaptation and recovery, disrupted sleep patterns, fatigue, and ultimately poor performance. By the way, notice how much these symptoms look like (and are likely correlated with) overtraining.
One way we can help better balance the nervous system and down-regulate for adaptation is thru better diaphragmatic breathing. In Part 2, I discussed how breath-holding and prioritizing inhalation during max effort can up-regulate the sympathetic nervous system and increase force output. Similarly, prioritizing exhalation via the diaphragm can down-regulate the sympathetic nervous system for better balance.
To help shut down and recover, try this for 5 minutes per day preferably before bed:
1. Lay on your back with knees bent, one hand on abdomen at the bottom of the rib cage and one on the upper chest.
2. Take a breath in thru the nose and breathe into the belly, feeling the hand on your abdomen rise. The hand on your upper chest should not rise – only the diaphragm and lower ribs should move. There should be no pause between inhalation and exhalation.
3. Breathe out in a slow, controlled motion – this should be completely passive. Take twice as long to exhale as it took to inhale.
4. Time yourself and aim for 8-10 breaths per minute, this may take time to accomplish as the athlete may feel some air hunger indicating a reset system (abnormal is now normal) where they’ve been chronically over-breathing – which is why this feels weird. Concentrating on the exhalation should help. *Obviously breathe if necessary, don’t be a knucklehead about this and pass out – breathing should always win.
Diaphragmatic breathing takes practice but can be extremely effective at helping down-regulate this sympathetic breathing state and promoting recovery and a balanced baseline. Break the stressed-out loop and start PRing – we need to better manage and maintain homeostasis with the tools that we have.
“If breathing is not normalized, no other movement can be” Lewit
*If you need more than self-management for this, then find a local provider. Breathing always wins.
**Kelly Starrett has some good stuff on this, as do the DNS and PRI groups if you yearn for more.