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Functional Breathing – What, Why, How

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Functional Breathing – What, Why, How

On my daily walks, I cannot fail but be impressed by the number runners of all ages and levels of fitness that now populate the park. It may be my imagination, but it seems as though more people have taken up running since Covid-19  arrived on the scene.

Apart from running technique (more on this in another blog), I notice their breathing as they plod/shuffle or soar past maintaining (mostly) social distance. So, is there a correct way to breathe and why does it matter?

How you breathe affects every area of your physical and mental wellbeing. Whether it is premature ageing, dodgy digestion, weight gain, disturbed sleep, anxiety or reduced athletic performance, poor breathing is usually a factor. If you suffer from asthma,  hay fever or brain fog, these improve or are alleviated by improving the functionality of your breathing.

Respiratory Biochemistry

Breathing affects the biochemistry of your blood, because the level of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitric oxide are effected by how you breathe.

  • The primary reason we breathe is to take in oxygen, which is a key component of aerobic respiration. Transported in the bloodstream by haemoglobin, oxygen is delivered to our mitochondria – the powerhouse of our cells.
  • Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of metabolism, and we get rid of it by exhaling.
    An appropriate level of carbon dioxide is required for oxygen to enter our cells. Too low and the oxygen remains trapped in the blood stream. This is a key factor in determining our breathing cycle, as it generates our urge to breathe in.
  • Nitric Oxide is produced in the paranasal sinuses. Its function is to sterilise the air inhaled and help dilate the blood vessels all the way down in the lungs so that oxygen can get into your bloodstream.

Correct breathing therefore can address imbalances in your blood biochemistry allowing you to make the most of the carbon dioxide and oxygen.

Mechanics of breathing.

Inhaling (inspiration) and exhaling (expiration) are part of the complex process of respiration, which includes four steps:-

  • Ventilation
  • Pulmonary Gas Exchange
  • Gas Transport
  • Peripheral Gas Exchange

For the purposes of this blog I am only going to describe ventilation.

Ventilation

The space between the lungs and inner thoracic wall (pleural space) is filled with fluid (pleural fluid) forming a seal which holds the lungs against the thoracic wall by force of surface tension. This seal ensures the lungs undergo expansion or reduction as the thoracic cavity expands or reduces.

In accordance with Boyle’s Law:

  • When the volume of the thoracic cavity increases, the volume of the lungs increases and the pressure within the lungs decreases.
  • When the volume of the thoracic cavity decreases, the volume of the lungs decreases and the pressure within the lungs increases.

During quiet inspiration, contraction of the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles result in an increase in thoracic cavity volume and lung volume. As per Boyle’s law, the pressure in the lungs decreases and is now lower than the environment external to the lungs, meaning air flows into the lungs.

During passive expiration, the diaphragm and external intercostal muscles relax, reducing the volume of the thoracic cavity and increasing the pressure inside the lungs. The pressure within the lungs is now higher than in the external environment and air is expelled from the lungs. Lung tissue is elastic and this allows the lungs to return to their original size.

Inspiration and expiration can be active processes by involving more accessory muscles.

Active Inspiration involves the contraction of

  • Scalenes to elevate the upper ribs
  • Sternocleidomastoid to elevate the sternum
  • Pectoralis major and minor to pull the ribs outwards
  • Serratus anterior to elevate the ribs when the scapulae are fixed
  • Latissimus dorsi to elevate the lower ribs

All act to increase the volume of the thoracic cavity.

Active Expiration results from the contraction of several thoracic and abdominal muscles to decrease the volume of the thoracic cavity.

  • Anterolateral abdominal wall increases the intra-abdominal pressure, pushing the diaphragm further upwards into the thoracic cavity
  • Internal intercostal to depress the ribs
  • Innermost intercostal to depress the ribs

Why Nose Breathing Matters

A big breath is not the same as a deep breath. Taking big breaths through your mouth results in too much air being taken in, most often into the upper chest. This hyperventilation and leads to lower oxygen levels in your blood.

Breathing through your nose is the foundation of healthy breathing:

  • Your nose acts like a filter, warming and hydrating the air before it reaches your lungs
  • Your nose harnesses Nitric Oxide, which helps dilate the blood vessels all the way down in the lungs so that more oxygen gets into your bloodstream
  • Because the nostrils are smaller than the mouth, nasal breathing has a 50% resistance and helps regulate the amount of air taken in, resulting in 20% more oxygen being absorbed by the blood

Nose Breathing & Exercise

When the going gets tough it can be tempting to switch to mouth breathing , but if the above holds true, then it would be logical to conclude nose breathing would increase breathing efficiency even when running.

As air hunger increases you’ll find yourself switching a to mouth breathing, but if you are patient, practice continuously and gradually increase the length of time you can sustain nasal breathing you’ll be rewarded with better performance and recovery.

Breathing in and out of your nose during exercise also helps you maintain a lower your heart rate.

Breathing Exercises

Regular practice of breath work has the power to improve blood biochemistry and the biomechanics of breathing to:

  • improve circulation
  • increase oxygenation of cells, muscles and brain
  • assist balanced function of the nervous system
  • relieve stress, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, burnout and fatigue
  • reduce asthma and hay fever
  • improve concentration and focus
  • boost athletic performance and stamina

Slow Breathing

Slowing down your breathing reduces hyperventilation and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, calming your mind.

  • Close your eyes
  • Tune in to your breathing without trying to change anything
  • Progressively slow down your breathing aiming for 6 breaths per minute
  • Insert a short pause after breathing in
  • Relax and take your time breathing in
  • Insert a longer pause after breathing out
  • Relax, there’s no hurry to breathe in

Slow Breathing with Prolonged Exhalation

There are many variations on this exercise, but I find the following most useful:

  • 1:2 ratio is accessible to most people and can be sustained for long periods
  • 1:4 ratio is useful for dealing with stress
  • Close your eyes
  • Tune in to your breathing without trying to change anything
  • Begin with the slow breathing exercise above
  • In your mind count the length of inhalation and exhalation
  • Try to breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in (1:2 ratio)
  • You can increase the length of your exhalation slowly over 3-5 cycles

Diaphragmatic/Belly Breathing

  • Lie on your back with knees slightly bent and your head on a pillow
  • Place one hand on your upper chest and the other below your rib cage
  • Tune in to your breathing without trying to change anything
  • Tune in to the movement of your diaphragm as your breathe
  • Slowly inhale through your nose allowing your tummy to rise under your hand
  • Keep the hand on your upper chest as still as possible
  • Pause
  • Exhale through your mouth, allowing your tummy to fall under your hand
  • Keep the hand on your upper chest as still as possible
  • Pause for slightly longer before inhaling again

Restoring Functional Breathing

Whether your goal is to run faster, longer, sleep better or just enjoy a healthier life, joining my regular 3 Hour Functional Breathing Workshop will help you understand your breathing and how to restore it to its functional best.

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