Ever get stressed? Of course you have, you’re a human being and life gets chaotic. The advice most often given to people stressed, anxious, freaking out, etc.??? Take a deep breath! This isn’t just good advice when life gets messy, it’s also an awesome strategy for recovering during a workout and improving your performance. Stress, be it physical or mental, often has similar physiological mechanisms so lets talk about how to embrace stress and manage it accordingly.
When you exercise your heart rate increases and so does the volume and force of blood being pumped. As a result of this increased cardiac output blood pressure increases as well. This is natural! Your heart is working harder to supply the muscles you just exhausted with precious oxygen in order to refuel the energy supply needed to produce another serious effort. As a result of your heart working harder and pumping blood more forcefully your blood vessels are going to take on an increased pressure, thus blood pressure increases. More blood getting to the muscles when your exerting effort is ideal, as blood brings with it all the materials muscle’s need to keep functioning at a high level. However, once you’re done exerting high levels of energy (i.e. after your set of squats or kettlebell swings) you want your heart rate to go down and blood pressure to decrease. Why, you say, do you want your heart rate and blood pressure to decrease if we just covered why these are beneficial??? The answer is your survival instinct. Acute levels of elevated heart rate are good! Prolonged bouts of elevated heart expenditure and blood pressure however lead to increased emotional arousal, and as a result your brain thinks that you’re in trouble and therefore must cease activity in order to stay alive. As oxygen delivery is the reason your heart is working so hard during exercise, the best way to control your heart rate is to control oxygen, or your breath.
Put in as a simple a way as possible; when you’re working hard you want your heart pumping at an increased rate. When you’re resting, you want your heart to be calm. The faster you can return your heart rate to it’s resting rate, the faster you can return to exercise, and the faster you can return to exercise the more training you can accomplish which will make you a bigger, badder, better athlete! And, good news, the same breathing strategies discussed in the next paragraph can be used to achieve a sense of calm in non-training situations that arise too! Give them a shot when you’re feeling overstressed.
The best way to employ breath control is to simply be mindful of how you’re breathing both during your training set, as well as between sets of exercises. During these times the goal should be to take deep, smooth breathes in through your nose and out through your mouth. Even better is to aim for 5-10 breathes all at a tempo of inhaling for 4 seconds, holding for 2-3 seconds, exhaling fully in 4 seconds, and holding the exhale for 2-3 seconds. Key point here, when inhaling, aim to send all of the air into the space at the bottom of your sternum and above your belly button. This is called belly breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, and is a great way to combat the tense, shoulders up positions that generally occur when stressed, taking shallow chest breaths. This strategy of breathing control encourages complete oxygen transfer in your body, allowing for the oxygen you inhale to be swapped with the carbon dioxide you will be exhaling, thus allowing your body to expel all of the undesirable waste products of respiration, and take in all of the desired fuel necessary for full function.
Breathing helps the body eliminate toxins from our systems, calm down our central nervous system, and allow us to refocus on the present moment. In addition to the physical benefits of breath control, increased capacity for focused attention, reduction in anxiety, and increased sense of presence and awareness in the moment are some of the emotional and mental presence to intentional breath control breathing. The sayings, “a breath of fresh air,” or, “just take a deep breath,” are so commonly applied to stressful situations because breathing really works! Utilize your breathing to help improve recovery, performance, and mental state!!