TRY THIS: Looking in the mirror, inhale as fast and as deep as you can. Did your shoulders raise?
If so, you are not breathing as effectively as you might think.
If you didn’t, well done, there is still likely room for improvement though. After all, who taught us how to breath?!
We are not all suffocating so why should we look to improve our breathing?
- Respiratory training improves oxygen uptake, lung function, and overall well-being, enhancing athletic performance.
- Respiratory training can improve brain oxygenation, leading to enhanced cognitive performance, improved concentration, and mental clarity, at rest and during exercise.
- Respiratory training boosts physical performance, aids in recovery, and enhances breath control and brain function.
- To eventually improve oxygen uptake, lung function, and overall well-being, as well as enhance athletic performance.
- We also can not overlook the structural benefits of improving the muscles involved in respiration. They will provide strength and stability in certain movements but also improve / or allow us to breathe in certain postures, holds, lifts that we previously couldn’t. Therefore, enhancing our endurance. We certainly do not last too long when we don’t breathe!
- Humans are one of the few animals that can be breath independently of what is going on with the rest of our body. For example, many animals’ breath with every stride as they respiratory muscles act like bellows as they run. They cannot adjust their breath frequency independent of stride, we humans, however, can. This is great, but we do need to learn how to control it. Increased breathing frequency starts to trigger fatigue, it also, in many of us makes us breathe quickly into our chest and less into the bottom of our lungs. The bottom of our lungs can be five times more efficient that the top. So, in effect we would need to breath five times quicker for the same effect! Far better to be able to control and slow your breath for greater volume.
- Breathing better will also improve sleep and therefore all the benefits that come with that.
- Musculoskeletal problems, especially in the spine, arising from not breathing properly can be avoided.
What about everyone else?
Respiratory training is currently mainly used by people suffering from breathing problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a group of respiratory diseases that cause airflow obstruction and breathing-related problems, such as dyspnea. It includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis and is the fourth leading cause of death in the US. So, you can see what motivates them to improve and take up respiratory training.
Respiratory training is also used by elite athletes who wish to improve their sports performance and benefit from all the aforementioned reasons to breathe better.
But …what about everyone else? Do we all not want to access these benefits when most of it is so readily accessible. You need you and a few minutes!
How can we breathe better?
Popular techniques include diaphragmatic breathing, inspiratory muscle training, and yogic breathing. Respiratory training is the deliberate modification of how we usually breath throughout the day by implementing specific exercises and techniques.
Respiratory training aims to strengthen the diaphragm, which is the primary muscle of respiration as well as the inspiratory rib cage muscles. This will eventually increase the lung capacity that can be utilised and optimise oxygen delivery to the body’s tissues, including muscles, at rest and during exercise.
Thoracic and rib cage mobility reduces past the age 40, statistically. You don’t have to allow this to happen. Our lung size does not change as we age but if we lose this mobility, we cannot expand the space the lungs sit in, therefore, reducing the capacity and volume of air we can breathe in. Working on this can avoid this reduction and the consequences.
I have experimented myself and with clients, to exercise while only breathing through my nose while training at a steady state cardio level. This is initially, quite challenging, and almost panic inducing! It forces you to breath in quickly and deeply and exhale slower. With a bit of practice, I have seen a 10% reduction in heart rate for the same output! This is seriously significant and can change the energy system/training zone you are utilising. This has great impact on both performance but also metabolism.
Respiratory training can be applied through various techniques based on a goal and what best suits the individual.
- Performed in a supine position, sitting or standing, based on the practice level of the individual. (When you first learn the diaphragmatic breathing technique, you are recommended to practice it lying down on your back with your knees bent and head supported)
- Place one hand on your upper chest and the other on your belly, just below your ribcage, to feel your diaphragm as it moves up and down.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose so that your stomach pushes out, causing your hand to rise. The hand that lies on your chest should remain as still as possible.
- Exhale slowly and gently through your pursed lips by tightening your abdominals so that your stomach moves in.
Once you have mastered this you can play around with yogic breathing, also referred to as pranayama. These are mainly practiced through the guidance of a certified yoga instructor. It involves breath control via patterns and variations in respiration rate, with specific instructions regarding the number of breaths over a certain period of time. Meditation also includes many of these breathe work practices. Some variations of yogic breathing include alternate nostril, paced, and box breathing are readily accessible and need less guidance to practice. 4,7,8 I utilise any moment I remember. I feel great for taking this minute of practice. It’s almost so easy, the results are hard to believe.
Two other common forms of respiratory training include inspiratory muscle training (IMT) and yogic breathing.
IMT involves breathing exercises using a pressure threshold device to strengthen the inspiratory muscles, such as the external intercostals. It’s a form of resistance training for these muscles since it strengthens them, improving stamina and reducing breathing fatigue. It is performed sitting or standing, where the individual puts on a nose clip, holds the IMT device by the handle grip, and places the mouthpiece in the mouth. They breathe out as far as they can and take fast, forceful breaths through their mouth, trying to take in as much air as they can while expanding their chest. They then breathe out slowly with minimal effort while letting their shoulders relax.
I have used Airofit which works both inspiratory and expiratory strength. It comes with an app that both programmes and tracks improvement. The programmes utilise several different techniques. I have seen it improve my mood straight after a session, my performance and recovery overtime and sleep quality the very same day. Other devices are available.
A bit more of the science
The benefits of respiratory training are due to a combination of physiological mechanisms. Two of the main mechanisms are increased oxygen delivery and improved tissue oxygenation. Respiratory training allows increased amounts of oxygen to enter the bloodstream through the lungs, enhancing oxygen delivery to the body’s tissues and organs, such as the working muscles. The improved tissue oxygenation is crucial for the proper functioning of cells. It promotes metabolic processes which require oxygen to be attained and result in the production of energy, which is valuable for accomplishing vital cellular functions. The increased cellular energy produced is in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is the primary energy source for cells and derives from this increased metabolic function attained through respiratory training. Another vital mechanism through which respiratory training works is wound healing. Adequate oxygen levels are necessary for tissue repair and regeneration as well as angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels) in the injured area.
Regarding lung mechanics, respiratory training alleviates the strain on the respiratory system by strengthening inspiratory muscles, better-controlling breath, and eventually making breathing easier. Therefore, it reduces the effort required to breathe (work of breathing) and improves oxygen exchange in the lungs. This is particularly helpful when oxygen demand increases, as happens in pulmonary diseases and/or during exercise. Especially when the intensity of exercise increases, the breathing volume or ventilation must also rise to cope with the oxygen demand. The inspiratory muscles must contract more forcefully and rapidly to keep pace with the substantial increase in metabolism, and this process can be attained through respiratory training. Each of the proposed mechanisms above can lead to several benefits that respiratory training may offer an individual who regularly practices it.
One of the most important benefits associated with the first two mechanisms described above is the reduction of lung disease symptoms, such as:
- shortness of breath (at rest and during exercise)
- chest tightness
- and lack of energy, among others.
Therefore, people suffering from pulmonary diseases can have a much better quality of life by participating and enjoying all aspects of life. By improving lung health-related symptoms, respiratory training can vastly enhance sleep quality. Many people with compromised lung function face sleeping-related breathing disorders, with sleep apnoea being the most common. Engaging in respiratory training techniques can significantly decrease these symptoms, resulting in better sleep and reduced daytime fatigue.
Respiratory training can also lead to improved physical performance as oxygen uptake is elevated by an increase in the amount of lung capacity a person is able to use per breath (tidal volume) as well as the oxygen delivered to the working muscles during exercise. This improves cardiovascular endurance during exercise or sports activities, such as running and cycling.
Respiratory training can further enhance athletic performance by contributing to the recovery process after exercise. More specifically, it helps reduce muscle soreness, accelerate tissue repair, and promote faster recovery between workouts.
Respiratory training also strengthens the inspiratory muscles and improves breath control at rest and during exercise. Therefore, it helps improve breathing and posture as well as breathing and stability. Musculoskeletal problems, especially in the spine, arising from not breathing properly can be avoided. This is achieved by properly activating the deep core muscles, especially during exercise.
We test these breathing capabilities when we do our Metabolic testing we offer. This looks at breath analysis at both resting and active metabolism. It highlights structural and system limitations. It can highlight potential issues in health span as well as the focus for performance. In those we have tested it is very often the breathing limitations that are highlighted. Once addressed they lead to significant improvements.
Summary of respiratory training
Overall, respiratory training is the deliberate modification of how we usually breathe by implementing specific exercises and techniques. Its benefits are due to a combination of mechanisms, including increased oxygen delivery, improved tissue oxygenation, increased energy (ATP) levels, and enhanced respiratory muscle strength and mobility.
These mechanisms work together to improve sleep quality, sports performance, recovery, and brain function. They are currently mainly only utilised by those suffering lung disease or high-end athletes. I’d argue, and the evidence supports that respiratory training is a neglected but significant training modality that everyone would/should/could benefit from.
We are fortunate to be able to offer comprehensive testing to work out which areas need focus and improving. However, everyone can benefit from starting with basics.
I’d be happy if it was firstly acknowledged as an area many of us could benefit from improving.
Get yourself in front of a mirror!