Breath Control: A Matter of Life and Fitness
Written By Nathan Gagnon
CF L1, RKC
The rule of three in survival states: a person can go three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air. Obviously there will be individual and circumstantial exceptions to this rule; however, there is no more immediate need for our physical survival than the ability to breathe. So why then do we insure the water bottle we carry with us is never empty, log every morsel of food consumed to track our macros, but don’t spend a second thinking about how and when we breathe?
Part of this can be explained because, if we pay no attention to our breath, it will be regulated by the autonomic nervous system. This system controls unconscious physical processes such as digestion and heartbeat. We can be “unconscious” for eight hours at night while sleeping and our heart will keep beating while we keep breathing.
Our breath, however, is unlike other autonomous physical processes in that we can exert conscious control over it. We can hold it, breathe at a tempo, and choose whether we are breathing through our nose or mouth. While our heart rate and breath are closely related, we cannot simply change our heart rate by thinking about it; we can, however, control our breath.
What does this control do for us? Our breath is closely related to a number of physiological responses, some of which we would like to dampen or better regulate. While we can’t master all domains with our breath, we can greatly influence our performance.
Take, for example, when you enter a stressful social situation, such as a presentation, job interview, or first date—your palms may start to sweat, your heart starts to flutter, and your breath will start to naturally quicken. The mental stress of the situation has activated your sympathetic nervous system, also known as your “fight or flight” response. While this was a useful adaptation for early humans who had to quickly utilize this adrenaline to try and kill the lion or run, modern humans need to gain better control over this response. Your racing mind and perspiration soaked shirt don’t instill confidence in a potential new employer or hot date.
So how can you mitigate this negative response? The secret lies in consciously controlling your breath. Former Navy Seal and author of The Unbeatable Mind, Mark Divine, is a strong advocate for a technique called Box Breathing. In Box Breathing you inhale, hold your breath, exhale, hold your breath out, and repeat at an even tempo. A sample tempo involves breathing in for four seconds, holding for four seconds, breathing out for four seconds, and holding for four seconds. This cycle can be repeated for however long you choose. This conscious control of your breath will take your mind out of the excited state surrounding your stressful situation and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, also known as your “rest and digest” response. This response will slow your heart rate and ease your mind. Try practicing Box Breathing for just five minutes before your next stressful social situation and you will enter into a noticeably calmer, more mindful state.
How does all of this relate to fitness? We all know the feeling of having our heart rate spike while slogging through a workout, causing us to gasp for breath. Am I advocating box breathing during your next set of thrusters? Not exactly. While exercising, we are very much in tune with the primal “fight or flight” state. Our muscles demand more highly oxygenated blood, so our breathing and heart rate will elevate in order to deliver. This doesn’t mean we can’t influence the situation by remaining conscious of our breath, regulating its rhythm, and dampening this response. Every fitness movement has an eccentric, concentric, and isometric portion where our muscles are lengthening, shortening, or remaining static, respectively. While most people are aware of their position while performing a squat, you would be surprised by how many people are unaware of when they should be breathing during that same movement. As a general rule, you should inhale during an eccentric movement, exhale during a concentric movement, and maintain a slight pause in breath during an isometric movement (depending on the length of the hold).
If we want to transfer this over to a metabolic scenario where we are doing a high number of reps in a given workout, we need to find a rhythm where we can match our movement and breath patterns. Hardstyle kettlebell training provides a useful template to practice with a kettlebell swing: as we hinge at the hip and send the kettlebell down and back (eccentric), we take an audible breath in through the nose; when we open the hip and squeeze the glutes to send the kettlelbell up (concentric), we audibly exhale through the mouth. Practicing this breathing pattern in synchronization with the swing will help you engrain this breathing practice into your other movements.
This concept applies throughout the fitness spectrum. Ask yourself when do you breathe during a handstand push up? How many steps do you take between breaths as you run? Have you been holding your breath through that whole set of thrusters? Do you think that’s a good idea after what we have discussed? This is all food for thought. Even if your Fran time is under three minutes, try and do it while holding your breath. You probably won’t survive, literally!