Breathing Basics: Switching Sympathetic to Parasympathetic

Breathing drills have become an important foundation to each and everyone of my training sessions and it is something that, while complex on the surface, can be implemented in very simple ways that come with huge payoff.

If you want to get a primer in breathing drills, please check out my post from a few years back to get a foundational understanding of WHY they can be an important part of any training session: BREATHING DRILLS

In the past, I really only used one breathing drill per session, today it is up to a minimum of three. I like using a 3-drill circuit as the first thing the athlete does in their session for dual purpose of reaching the autonomic nervous system and targeting the respiratory muscles for warm-up purposes.

When using these drills in this way, paying attention to the way the athlete is breathing is very important. In this case the correct way would be to get as much air in as you can through your nose, hold it for a moment, and then exhale through the mouth. 

Perhaps this runner could benefit from a pre-session breathing circuit to help optimize airflow and prevent excessive exhaustion?

Perhaps this runner could benefit from a pre-session breathing circuit to help optimize airflow and prevent excessive exhaustion?

Outside of this there are body positions that are more optimal to do this in than others, however this may be more useful when we are trying to reset positions than anything else. In truth, it really does not matter the position in which you are breathing, the most important thing is that we are breathing deeply. 

The main goal of this type of breathing drill is to take us or our athletes from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state. This would mean switching your brain away from the daily stresses that all people deal with (from their boss, family, relationships, etc.) to focusing on the practice/training session in which they are about to engage. It helps the mind separate from the noise that doesn't help while you’re training, practicing, or competing. 

The other purpose that the breathing serves is to get the airflow to go through the body in a way that is extremely helpful for learning how to properly brace and support the spine. This is a safety enhancement, first and foremost, and a performance enhancement second. We want the body to be able to brace against and resist force, while we also want it to be able to produce force. Both of these are optimized with proper breathing. 

Bracing and resisting against forces protects us from injury, while producing force is what aids our performance. Breathing drills are the easiest way to start to teach an athlete’s body how to do those things. The key is making sure that the airflow is going deep down into your belly and expanding into your lower back and into the sides of your waist. 

With this style of breathing we are also activating all of the important muscles in the trunk that are involved in bracing. Activating these muscles help realign the bony structures in our body to aid in stability and bracing.  For example, many people tend to have an anterior pelvic tilt. If you think about your hips as a bucket of water, if you dip it forward, that would be an anterior pelvic tilt, and the water is now spilling out a little bit. Breathing drills help us pull those hips back into neutral and teach the muscles what that feels like to be neutral and braced in that position. Another good example of this would be rib position. 

Another common positional fault would be an overextended position in the ribs, which carries over to both injury risk and performance. This is another common postural fault that increases injury risk and can decrease performance just through an ineffective improper rib position. If someone is standing and they seem to be sticking their chest out, they are probably overextended. They're not just standing straight up, they're going beyond that. The telltale sign for this is we see the ribs sticking out. There are simple breathing drills that work to tuck those ribs back in and teach them where they should be. We need to get them to have a closer relationship with the diaphragm, which is extremely important from a positional standpoint. 

Nothing fancy here. Just deep breaths.

We went pretty into the weeds here but the most important thing to take away is if you come into the gym a little stressed out, just take some time and do a breathing drill. For example, eight deep breaths as a minimum. You can do those seated, close your eyes or don't close them, just make sure that air goes in through your nose and out through your mouth, traveling deep deep down into your belly. Doing this alone will really help you feel more calm and ready to get into your training session or whatever it is that you're trying to transition into.

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