While so many of us are exiled from our pools and can’t go swimming at this time, if there was one skill I could choose for you to work on during these weeks away – one that would benefit EVERYTHING else you are doing in life, from sleeping, to digestion, to thinking and decision-making, to mood, to exercise – what would it be?

Study, practice, strengthen and habituate diaphragmatic breathing.

This essay is part of a series discussing the kind of complementary training you can do while kept away from the pool that will prepare you to be even better when you go back. These are not merely nice suggestions, these are actually essential, fundamental skills that, if made present or if made stronger, could dramatically improve your performance as a swimmer.  

Some people breathe deep, from the diaphragm all the time, but allegedly it is not many. The specialists that I have studied on this generally estimate only about 20% of adults breathe this way, while they make strong arguments that inferior breathing (read ‘poorly oxygenated’) makes a massive contribution, if not co-causing a host of diseases. 

An inferior breathing pattern is, by my observation, causing a great portion of the suffering I see in swimmers and runners, let alone non-athletic people. Most people don’t seem to be aware that the inferior way they are breathing normally is not only unsuitable to their daily activities and exercise, it is detrimental to their health. They might only be aware that breathing is a problem when they try to exercise, but adaptation over years to this deprivation has caused them to not notice or connect its effects to their ailments outside of exercise too. 

However necessary, changing one’s default breathing pattern is tricky, because although breathing can be controlled consciously to some degree, there are very strong autonomic nervous system responses driving one’s breathing habits. Those responses might be mis-programmed by chronic or acute stressful life experiences and by lifestyle, and these form a strong tide to work against. And, it’s not just the default neural patterns that need to be changed, the muscles around superior breathing are weak. One not only needs to reprogram the pattern, those muscles connected to the pattern have to be made fit again to take over this work full time. To change these breathing programs one has to put in considerable effort, but it can be done, and many of you who have this problem may now have the time to actually work on this every day for the next several weeks.

We might say there are two ends of the spectrum in ways of breathing – there is deep diaphragmatic breathing which goes down low into the abdominal region, and there is high chest breathing which goes up into the upper chest, shoulders and neck.  We want to be low and deep during all our rest, during calm activities and pleasant vigorous activities. We should aim for staying deep and low during stressful and anxious times too because this will greatly help emotional regulation and clear thinking, but we may have to practice this as a discipline (as meditators do). We should reserve that high, upper chest breathing for extreme defensive situations (mobilization for ‘fight or flight’) – it has it’s purpose, but hopefully not very often in life, and not lasting very long.

I am not going to go into a lesson about how to do diaphragmatic breathing here. You can easily do a search on Youtube and find dozens of videos demonstrating the difference, and describing the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing. I will put recommended resources at the end of this post.

But here are some steps I recommend for how to approach working on changing the pattern…

Level 1 – Awareness

Self-awareness comes before self-control and deliberate retraining.

First, just work on becoming aware of your breathing pattern. Notice the pattern at rest, during calm activities, during pleasant vigorous activities, and during stressful (read ‘unpleasant’ or ‘anxious’) experiences and activities. 

Periodically check in and just observe how you are breathing at different moments of the day – when you first wake up; when eating breakfast; when grooming in front of the mirror; when driving the car; when standing in line; when talking on the phone; when sitting in a meeting; when interacting with certain people and when just anticipating interacting with those people, etc., etc.

You might set a special alarm on your phone (use a unique chime) to remind you to check in at random moments throughout the day.

 

Level 2 – A New Pattern At Rest

Begin work on your breathing pattern, but first, work on establishing diaphragmatic breathing at rest. You can do this in bed before going to sleep and just after waking, before rising. Start with building a habit over a couple weeks for doing only that, which can establish the first habit that makes the subsequent ones easier to set up.

Then you may start working on this pattern for any time you find yourself sitting, in calm activities – while eating, while reading or watching a screen, while working at a desk. 

There are two reasons for this approach: 

Reason 1 – your easiest opportunity to change breathing pattern is to do it under more pleasant, or least stressful situation for your body. The more stress there is the stronger the pull will be to flip back to the default (inferior) breathing pattern.

Reason 2 – those muscles that make diaphragmatic breathing happen are out of shape and need a process for gradually becoming coordinated and strong and ready to work full time again. If they cannot keep going for more than a few minutes in resting times without conscious effort, they are certainly not going to magically rise to the occasion under vigorous exercise when you can scarcely pay attention to it.

If you cannot maintain diaphragmatic breathing at rest, then without doubt, you are not doing this during exercise. Diaphragmatic breathing gives you something like 3x more air exchange than chest breathing. If you are a chest breather in exercise, then you are trying to work under extreme air restriction. And, then one wonders why he’s been suffering so much in exercise? 

 

Level 3 – A New Pattern In Exercise

Once you have diaphragmatic breathing firmly established at rest and in calm activities, then you are in much better position to work on breathing this way in pleasant vigorous activities and exercise. Awareness and sensitivity to deviation are stronger. The neural pathways for this pattern are more firmly established. The muscles are more fit and ready to work.

 

Level 4 – A New Pattern Under Duress

And, if you want to enter into the black belt realm of breathing and self-regulation, then take up a deep breathing and meditation practice to establish the time and space between stimulus and response which allows you to remain more calm and think clearly under more difficult situations.

 

Resources

Of course, you can start with breathing and meditation and use that to work through the levels of control over breathing. Vipassana meditation combines breathing and meditation.

Donna Farhi is a classic teacher on breathing and you may check out The Breathing Book.

Dr. Belisa Vranich has TED Talks, The Breathing Class and her book Breathe.

Patrick McKeown has provided some simple and powerful exercises to improve respiration in the popular The Oxygen Advantage program.

Of course, I am sure there are some Wim Hof Method fans out there. Breathing and cold water are a nice combination.

And, I appreciate another classic Breathe Well, Be Well, on the psychology and medical side, from Robert Fried.

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