“Just breathe,” I said to an athlete during a conditioning piece. Hunched over with hands on knees and trying to gulp what appeared to be chunks of air, their response was “How do I breathe?” I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. See, breathing is like a beating heart. Unless due to a birth defect or some form of trauma, it’s an innate activity. We don’t have to think about breathing for it to happen, it just happens because if it didn’t, we’d die.
Breathing is largely controlled by the autonomic division of the nervous system (ANS). The ANS acts subconsciously to control bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing and digestion. Although changes in your breathing happen subconsciously, we are able to consciously affect respiration. It’s a skill essential to life and performance in the gym, and better breathing is trainable, just as strength and endurance are. As your ability to control your breath improves, so does your ability to maintain focus and presence in all situations.
Before we go through some tips to controlling your breathing, some knowledge. Your respiratory rate increasing has more to do with getting rid of carbon dioxide than getting more oxygen in. Carbon dioxide is a toxic byproduct and incorrect breathing. such as hyperventilating (unduly increasing the rate of breathing), increase carbon dioxide levels. Do you have the habit of taking lots of quick and shallow breaths before a heavy lift or at the start of a metcon? That’s hyperventilating and can make you feel light headed, dizzy and can even result in you blacking out. So it wasn’t because you were bracing so hard 😉
This is your first step to taking control of your breathing. It helps to be in a quiet place with little distractions. Without trying to change your breathing , simply take note of your breathing. How many times do you breath (in and out) in a minute when relaxed and at rest? What’s happening to your abdomen and rib cage as you breath? Are you breathing in/out through the nose or mouth, or both? The idea is to be able to clear as much thought from the mind in order to be able to devote most of your attention to your breathing.
- Put your hand on your belly
- Take a deep breath in through the nostrils and push your hand out with your belly
- Then exhale fully, pushing your hand into your belly towards your spine
- As you repeat, focus on expanding the belly, then your lower ribs and finally the upper ribs before exhaling
This is where you start to control the rate of breathing more. Remember to focus on the belly breathing.
- Time the length of your inhalation, starting with 3 seconds
- Exhale for the same duration
- Start your next breath in immediately at the end of the 3 second exhalation but ensure that you’ve pressed every last bit of air out during the 3 second interval
- As you improve your ability to fully inhale and exhale, increase the duration but keep the durations of the inhale and exhale exactly the same
This is something you can implement in any situation to regain control of your breathing, which in turn improves focus and performance.
This final step is what the SealFit team use and recommend for the ultimate control of breathing. If it works for Navy Seals, it should work for you! Once you’ve mastered the timed breathing, move on to this.
- The belly and timed breathing techniques remain the same as above – belly breathing in through the nostrils with equal inhalation and exhalation durations
- Now, once you’ve breathed in, hold your breath for the same duration. Let’s go with 3 seconds again.
- Exhale for 3 seconds as before, but now, once you’ve pressed all air out, wait 3 seconds before breathing in again
- So it looks like this: In for 3s > Hold for 3s > Out for 3s > Wait for 3s > In for 3s and so on
- Gradually increase the durations as you get better, but maintain equal durations for each portion
Applying it to Workouts
The above methods are what you’re going to apply at rest during quiet time. That’s how you begin to develop better control of your breathing. But you’ll need to start applying it to training too, which will in turn set you up to manage your breathing in life situations too. The best way to apply the timed and box breathing techniques in a workout are to use your reps as the tempo. You’re typically better at breathing during strength work because it forms part of your bracing technique, so let’s focus on metcons.
- Running example: Breath in for two steps, out for two steps. Change the tempo according to your running pace.
- Rowing example: Breath in as you recover, hold your breath in the catch, breath out as you drive, pause in the release before going back to breath in the recovery
- Gymnastics and weightlifting movements: Breath in before you move or during the eccentric phase, exhale as you move or during the concentric phase, breath in and out if you do rest at the midpoint of the movement
These are just examples of how you apply breathing control techniques in a workout. It takes a lot of time to master, but the first step is awareness.
When practising the breathing control during quiet time, start with three to five minutes a day and then up it to 10 minutes. It requires daily effort, just as fitness does. Likewise, improvements will be dependent on your diligence.
At the very least, just remember to (focus on) breathe!
Calorie counting, it’s the new carb bashing. How many should we consume? How many should we get in a meal? What proportion of calories should come from each macronutrient (macro)? Will I burn those calories with exercise? How much exercise do I need to do to burn the right amount of calories? Which methods should I use, Zone, RP, Eat to Perform….?
As noted in Managing Nutrient Intake, I believe that for many people wanting to refine their dietary approach and therefore health and fitness results, food quantity is the next step after dialing in quality. Referring back to that article again, whichever nutrition approach you choose to follow it’s important to understand that we’re not looking for quick fixes. The goal is to implement changes that are both sustainable and that provide a base-a framework-from which to ensure sustainable results in the long term. It’s also essential to have a basic understanding of the good and the not so good of the approaches you’re looking at. Let’s look at the good and bad of calorie/macro counting, regardless of the method and with a perspective on long term health.
Without measurable, observable and repeatable data, any changes made will be guestimates. Now that’s not entirely a bad thing because you learn a ton along the way, but we’re also looking for efficiency in results and guestimates will take you on the long route.
In general, people aren’t great at eyeballing portion sizes! Some research shows that people mismeasure portion sizes about two-thirds of the time. A tablespoon easily becomes a heaped tablespoon, one cup becomes a cup “and a bit,” and “that looks like 100ml.” For these people, adhering to a measured amount of food most of the time works best. It also helps to ensure that they don’t end up yo-yo dieting.
Measuring food quantities also gets you thinking about what you’re eating. You’re therefore less likely to find yourself on that slippery slope of “just one more treat.”
Given the data-driven approach, it gets results, when adherence is good and the individual doesn’t become consumed by the numbers!
The Not So Good
Many advocates of calorie/macro counting say that it’s based on the science of energy balance. Energy balance refers to the energy in versus energy out equation. Consume more calories/energy than you’re expending and you’ll gain weight, or consume fewer calories/energy than you’re expending and you’ll lose weight. The problem is that’s a pseudo-science. The equation is MUCH more complex than that. Calories in and calories out are only two variables to the equation. There’s your basal metabolic rate (BMR, which some macro counting methods do use), insulin resistance, glycemic load, thermic effect of food, energy expenditure from both non-exercise physical activity and exercise (which your Apple watches and FitBits don’t calculate very accurately), undigested food, and macro proportions. And that’s probably just some of it! The image above gives you an idea of how complicated the energy balance equation really is.
When comparing studies that have evaluated caloric intake and changes in body composition we see that diets with the same caloric intake provide very different results. You could have two people consuming and expending exactly the same amount of calories, one may lose an unhealthy amount of weight while the other may increase all health and fitness markers. The results from these studies are partly explained by the proportion of macros consumed, but only partly.
The point I’m making here is that a calorie is not a calorie, and saying that a calorie counting approach to nutrition is based on science is bullshit. The science is in the data being used for that person – their body composition, macro amounts, health and fitness markers. Using those numbers to measure, predict and make changes is where the science lies. Not on calories in versus calories out.
Another problem with calorie/macro counting are food labels. The numbers you see on labels are averages, so the true content of what you’re eating is generally higher or lower than what is shown on the label. But if you’re generally ‘gathering’ your food from the same sources and the results aren’t as great as you’d like, at least you know that it could have to do with the food industry screwing us over.
We also don’t absorb all the calories we consume. Now there is a formula that tells you how many of the calories consumed per macro are available for absorption, but calculation doesn’t work well with nuts and seeds, and protein and fibre rich foods. So that too is not quite so simple.
How you prepare food also changes it’s caloric load, and everyone absorbs calories uniquely.
The above problems with calorie counting, however, are mitigated by the fact that you have data to work with. If the results you’re seeking aren’t quite happening then you’re able to make informed changes to your intake. Remeasure, retweak, repeat as necessary. So they aren’t really the bad things about calorie/macro counting. They’re things you need to know that may negate the calorie counting method.
The real problems, for me, with calorie/macro counting lie in the psychology of food and the approach to these methods by some.
Research has shown that your favourite foods, especially refined and processed CHO, activates the body’s reward system. This system encourages you to repeat the behaviour that is providing the pleasure, and is the same system that casinos exploit in gamblers. It’s a powerful system. Research has shown that the reward system can override the body’s cues for satiety which may lead to overeating. We also know that dietary treats have the same effect on the brain as recreational drugs. These foods give you that feel good feeling.
Combine that knowledge with calorie counting and you end up with some justifying the use of poor quality ‘food’ – calorie dense but nutrient sparse, man made products – over quality food because “it fits their calorie/macro prescription.” Remember, I said that your dietary approach is a framework that you sustainably implement 80% of the time so that for the rest of the time you eat just for joy. For some, the calorie counting approach plays too much to the emotional relationship with food, they focus more on the flexible side of the equation and they forget about food as a fuel. Like pissing in a gas tank – the car still looks great and will run okay, for a while.
This is similar to the problem of people becoming consumed by the numbers. Instead of tuning into their bodies and learning what is hunger, satiety and thirst, they base everything they do on calorie/macro amounts. Food becomes a number and no longer something the mind and body needs as a fuel for general functioning or even as a pleasure.
These latter problems with the calorie/macro approach are individually dependent. Not everyone goes that way, as long as they’re being guided well. When you understand that both quality and quantity matter, that the method you choose should emphasise the means instead of the end, that food must be approached as both a fuel for basic human functioning AND as a joy, when you’re educated about the good and bad of an approach, then only will the calorie/macro counting method work for both your health, performance and sanity!
Do I measure macros? Absolutely, 80-90% of the time and have been for almost 3 years. Do I prescribe it for nutrition coaching clients? Yes, but not all. Does it work? Yes, as long as it’s data driven. Is it sustainable? Most certainly, but only if the base is good food.
“Exercise helps you to DO stuff better (strength, flexibility, coordination, power, endurance). Nutrition helps you to BE better (healthy body composition, insulin, blood pressure, blood glucose, inflammation etc all under control).” – Darren Ellis, founder of CFNZ and nutrition coach
CFJ HQ: MEMBER PROFILE – WADEL NGULUBE
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A JOB?
– I’m the Systems Designer/Acoustics Specialist at BNC Technology. I’m responsible for anything design related and running projects.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TRAINING AT CFJ?
– About 6 Months now (I think, LOL)
WHAT ENCOURAGED YOU TO JOIN US WHEN YOU DID?
– Our MD Nick C. kept going one about how cool CrossFit was at the office. For about a year we brushed him off and about this time last year I started researching, our GM Bianca got us signed up, I did the ground works and I was hooked. NEVER LOOKED BACK!!!
ARE THERE ANY MEMORIES FROM YOUR FIRST DAYS THAT YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE?
– My first 200m sled push was bad. I actually think I passed out after. I had never felt anything like that before. To this day I have to really prepare myself mentally before I push sleds. It’s just one of those for me.
WHAT IS THE COOLEST THING THAT YOU HAVE ACHIEVED AT CFJ?
– So far my times for Helen, Fran, Elizabeth etc have been improving by at least a minute/minute and a half for each so that’s been cool for me at this point in my journey.
WHAT CHANGES IN YOUR HEALTH HAVE YOU NOTICED SINCE STARTING CrossFit?
– I noticed an increase in my energy levels.
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE NOT BUSY GETTING FITTER AT CFJ?
– I enjoy trail running a lot so I try doing that every weekend. Apart from that I spend a lot of time with friends and family because I’m so busy during the week.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENTS SINCE JOINING CFJ?
– My biggest achievements this far has been a drastic improvement in mental strength, Lifestyle improvement and time efficiency. I’ve been able to take these principles and apply them to different areas of my life which I truly appreciate.
LIST SOME OF YOUR CFJ BUCKET LIST ITEMS.
– Definitely muscle ups
– Pistol on a Kettle bell
– Butterfly pull ups
WHERE IS YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE TO EAT OUT IN JOZI?
– Rodizio in Bedfordview.
IF YOU COULD INVITE 3 FAMOUS PEOPLE TO DINNER, WHO WOULD THEY BE?
– It would have to be Barack Obama
– Mohammed Ali- “The Greatest of all time”
– Filippo Perini- Former Design Director at Lamborghini- He designed the Lamborghini Aventador.
WHO INSPIRES YOU AT CFJ AND IS THERE ANYONE ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO GIVE A SHOUT OUT TO?
– I draw a lot of my inspiration from my colleagues because they very passionate about CFJ/Crossfit in general and we feel we relate to it on so many levels. Apart from that everyone at the box, such a great community. Shout Out?? Hmmm THE COACHES, I think you guys are world class, appreciate the professionalism and attention to detail. The journey has been amazing this far.
TELL US AN INTERESTING FACT WE MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT YOU.
– I’m addicted to watches. Just thinking about it now gets me excited. Hahahaha. Currently building my collection, I have about 7 now
IN NO MORE THAN 5 WORDS, TELL US WHY YOU CrossFit.
– Attention to Detail!
A quick recap: Good nutrition is the foundation for both general health and fitness, nothing new there. Central to good nutrition is controlling blood sugar levels. That dictates our state of metabolism and therefore levels of insulin. Hyperinsulinemia is the root cause of atherogenesis and therefore coronary heart disease. We primarily manage blood sugar levels by the types and amounts of CHO we consume but the consumption of the other macronutrients, fat and protein, also plays a role. To avoid hyperinsulinemia and it’s effects we should base our diet on meat and veges, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar, and we should keep intake to levels that support exercise but not body fat.
Is controlling blood sugar and therefore energy for the fuel and recovery of exercise, and body fat levels that simple, though? No.
For a start, the glycemic index (GI) of a food doesn’t entirely tell us about that food’s propensity to raise blood sugar levels because it doesn’t take portion size into account. Two types of CHO could have the same GI, but one might require consumption of twice the amount than the other to elicit the same blood sugar response. That’s where the glycemic load comes in, but let’s keep it simple!
Low glycemic also doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. You can find premium ice-cream that has a lower GI and glycemic load than an apple, and it could give you the same amount of calories, but that doesn’t mean it’s better for you. So you have to consider what a food has to offer you in terms of nutrition and in the context of your diet as a whole.
And we can’t overlook individuality. Everyone is different from the cellular level out, so we’re all going to respond differently to various stimuli.
This is why you need a base, a framework, on which to build your dietary approach. A framework isn’t a quick fix like a port-a-loo. It’s something that is sustainable – you can adhere to it at least 80% of the time forever and it will keep on giving you results. The results we are referring to here are intake levels that support exercise but not body fat and provide the nutrients needed for health, while still ensuring that you’re enjoying life and food.
If that base includes meat and veges, nuts and seeds, and some fruit, you’re getting your micronutrients in and it will largely take care of the exercise side of the equation. But if you’d like to get the most out of exercise while controlling body fat efficiently, you’re going to need to refine your macronutrient intake. That means calculating a CHO, protein and fat intake that’s relevant to your activity levels, body composition and lifestyle goals.
So, in my opinion, both food quality and quantity matter in the big picture of long term health and fitness. There’s little space to debate what constitutes quality food, whereas there are an array of measuring quantities. Most of them work, but beware the energy balance methods. Those methods are based on the calories in vs. calories out approach that simply looks to balance your (supposed) caloric expenditure and intake. A calorie is not a calorie, and more on that next time.
In Part 1 of the Avoiding Disease series we covered metabolism and insulin. Insulin is a growth and storage hormone released in response to blood sugar levels increasing. It allows the uptake of glucose for energy in skeletal muscle and major organs, synthesises glucose and fat, prevents the breakdown of glycogen and fat cells, and enhances protein synthesis. Insulin is therefore an essential hormone.
As is often the case with the human body, insulin was first learnt about through diseases that resulted in it abnormal activity. The hallmark pathology of insulin is the family of diseases known as diabetes mellitus, most commonly referred to as type 1 and type 2 diabetes. In type 1 the body doesn’t produce enough or any insulin, whereas in type 2, insulin levels are normal but the body is resistant to it’s effects.
While the insulin and diabetes relationship is well known, not much else about insulin and health is ever published. Not so much because science and the medical profession doesn’t know, but because it’s likely withheld and suppressed.
Way back in 1989, Dr. Norman Kaplan published a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine about the deadly quartet – upper body obesity, glucose intolerance, hypertriglyceridemia and hypertension – and its relation to hyperinsulinemia (chronically elevated levels of insulin). The study proved that hyperinsulinemia was in fact the root cause of these conditions.
If you are normally tolerant to increases in blood glucose, your blood glucose will rise immediately after a CHO dense meal but it rapidly decreases following insulin secretion. If you are glucose intolerant your blood glucose levels remain high even if sufficient insulin is present (synonymous with type 2 diabetes). This is a result of hyperinsulinemia.
Upper Body Obesity
This one should be pretty straightforward. It’s the accumulation of excess body fat, such that it negates health. Again, a result of hyperinsulinemia.
Triglycerides are the main constituent of body fat found in the blood. Put simply, it’s broken down fat being transported by the blood for energy. “Hyper” refers to levels being to high.
As with the above three markers, blood pressure has a health range. When your blood pressure is chronically above the healthy range, you have hypertension.
All of these markers are the result of hyperinsulinemia. That is, hyperinsulinemia is the cause. And what causes insulin to increase? The ingestion of carbohydrates. Therefore, hyperinsulinemia is a result of the habitual and excess consumption of carbohydrates, especially CHO with a high glycemic index (GI), and CHO ingestion in the absence of protein and fat.
To digress, the GI is a measure of a CHO’s propensity to raise blood glucose, and therefore insulin, levels. Some high GI CHO have an essential place in the diet of people who are exercising regularly, when consumed at the correct time (refer to Part 1 in this series). Refined and processed CHO and sugars are of the highest GI.
Back to topic. Excess and habitual consumption of high GI CHO causes hyperinsulinemia. Hyperinsulinemia causes obesity, glucose intolerance, hypertriglyceridemia and hypertension – the deadly quartet. The deadly quartet, either alone or together, are direct causes of atherogenesis and coronary heart disease.
Now the old school clinical view, which is unfortunately still the conventional view by many, is that first you get obese, then your cholesterol increases, which then causes hypertension, ultimately leaving you diabetic with high levels of insulin. It’s a massively flawed approach, and one that’s probably used to make you feel better about yourself. But no, you aren’t getting sick because you’re fat. You’re getting sick because you have a shitty diet, a diet with an excess of high GI CHO. No, dietary fat is not making you fat. Habitual and excess consumption of high GI CHO is.
Before you ask, genetics have nothing to do with this. If there are any physicians out there using genetics as causality, we call your bullshit. Some people, however, do have a genetic predisposition to eating poorly. That refers to how you were brought up, and can be likened to the predisposition to substance abuse – even if you did have the gene for substance abuse, you’d need to consume those substances in order to express that gene.
So how do you avoid hyperinsulinemia, and therefore disease? Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. In Part 3 we’ll talk about how to control intake levels, but to end, body composition says little about your markers of heart disease.