Breathing has such an important role in our lives that it is an unconscious action everyone does, or they simply cannot survive. However, it is such an overlooked aspect of health and performance, most likely because of its inherent simplicity. The truth is there is so much more to breathing than air in, air out - for both health and performance.
· ANS (autonomic nervous system): the ANS is comprised of two subdivisions – the SNS (sympathetic nervous system) and the PSNS (parasympathetic nervous system). In order to understand the role of breathing, it is important to understand these two systems and how they relate to each other. Think of the SNS as a “fight or flight” mode. It is responsible for raising heart rate, respiratory rate, and many other systems within the body. This is great if you are running away from danger, however not so great if you are trying to sleep. Its counterpart is the PSNS which does just the opposite. Think of the PSNS as a “rest and digest” mode which lowers heart rate, respiratory rate, etc.
· Vagus Nerve: the vagus nerve is responsible for innervating (controlling) just about every organ in our body. It has branches that go to the heart and lungs specifically and as a result has an integral role in regulating both organs.
· How to Affect It: the vagus nerve (and therefore the PSNS) has both sensory and motor fibers connecting the brain to the heart and lungs. This means that by consciously manipulating our breathing (volume, rate, etc.) we can have a sensory impact on the nerve which will result in a motor impact on the organs themselves. Stimulating the PSNS will not just affect the heart and lungs; it will have a positive impact on all the viscera and many other processes within the body. Slowing our breathing down is just an easy way to up-regulate the PSNS and gain these positive results.
· Manipulating Variables to Our Advantage: breathing can be used to benefit performance by manipulating the ANS through altering breathing variables. If someone is running a marathon it may be beneficial to keep heart rate down for example. By breathing more slowly, we can in a sense “trick” our brain into entering a more relaxed state, therefore allowing that person to sustain a slightly faster pace without all of the detrimental consequences. These variables can be changed in order to best suit the particular performance goals trying to be achieved.
A Few Techniques to Up-Regulate Parasympathetics
· Slowed Respiratory Rate: perhaps the simplest way to stimulate the vagus nerve and up-regulate the PSNS is to breathe more slowly. This sounds easy but if you are working at a high intensity, it can prove quite difficult. However, try to count a few seconds on the inhale and at least 3-5 seconds on the exhale.
· Box Breathing: this can be especially beneficial for those individuals lacking the discipline to just “breathe more slowly”. Box breathing is used by high-level performers such as the Navy SEALS. Breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, breath out for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, repeat. This is a sure way to stimulate the PSNS and a great way to get a performance edge.