“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, focus on your breath while moving, as opposed to focusing on how much you’re dying!
Something I’ve learnt over the years is that the silly season isn’t just defined by the period across Christmas and New Years when most people are away. The silly season starts in November and carries on through to some time later in January. So let’s revisit some silly season nutrition and training tips.
For me, it’s pretty straightforward – if you’d like to hold on to the changes you’ve made until now you simply keep doing what you have been. But I get it, it’s a festive time, it’s been a challenging year and you’d like to kick back. You should!
I always say that you’re going to be away for a month at the most. That’s just one month. It’s nothing relative to your lifetime, and about 5% of your training time during the year, IF you were consistent throughout the year. If you weren’t consistent, then you shouldn’t be worrying about losing all your gains during the holidays…..because you don’t have any gains!
So relax, enjoy your food and live well. But at the same time, I’d like to see you keep at least one foot on the wagon because if you do come off it entirely, it can take a very long time to get just that one foot on again.
Here are some tips to help you. Remember that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and keep it simple.
Protein and Fat
Aim to get a moderate amount in at all meals and snacks. It keeps you satiated so you’re less likely to snack, and protein has a thermic effect so it keeps your metabolism ticking over. If you’re not doing any physical activity that day, have a bit less than you normally would.
A reminder: All veges and fruit, all starches, fruit juices, baking, sweets and chocolates, ice-cream, and all grain-based products end up the same way – as sugar. The goodies, however, spike blood sugar and therefore insulin, stimulating the storage of fat, especially if you aren’t exercising much.
Have the goodies, but make that your carb for that meal or snack. If you are training, have your goodies after training. Put simply, if you plan on having treats, have less or none of the ‘good carbs’ to keep total carb intake similar to what it would be normally. But don’t avoid the veges, roots, tubers and fruit entirely because you need the fibre, mineral and nutrients.
There isn’t a particular amount of water that you should be having. Drink if you’re thirsty and avoid sports drinks and off-the-shelf fruit juices. Opt for a freshly squeezed juice and avoid sodas as much as possible. Tea and coffee does contribute to your fluid intake. Alcohol does not so avoid using it as your hydration 😉
You don’t have to train as much or as intensely as you would normally to maintain your fitness. In fact, the down time will do your mind and body good. But keep active as a way of expressing your fitness. Play sports, hike, cycle, swim, and try different stuff. Walking can be especially beneficial. Go for brisk, long walks every day if you aren’t doing any other physical activity.
Eat for Yourself
If your mates or partners can have a burger, fries and milkshake for lunch everyday without much ill-effect, it doesn’t mean that the same will happen to you. Be realistic about your body’s response to foods, and eat accordingly.
I personally consider holidays a time for (more) food and lots of sleep. So don’t geek out too much about what you’re eating while away!
A threshold is a limit, a point that must be exceeded in order for favourable adaptations to occur. One of the thresholds to consider in fitness is the technique/intensity threshold. When you go beyond that threshold in training, technique diminishes at the expense of power output (intensity). Technique is essential to maximising power and therefore fitness, but good technique without optimal speed will in fact stunt fitness.
It’s like motor sports.The best drivers are the ones who find that balance between speed and accuracy. But they only find that balance by tempting speed and by learning to take the vehicle all the way to almost losing control before reigning it in.
That’s what you need to do in training. Just like we stress your cardiorespiratory system for endurance adaptations and your muscular system for strength gains, your “control” must be stressed for it to improve. Fortunately, in training, the consequences aren’t as severe as in motor sports!
Most of this practice refers to metabolic conditioning and not strength work, because in strength work time is generally not an essential factor. So to train your conditioning workouts, develop your control just as the race care driver.
Start off by ensuring you’ve scaled the loads, movements and volume appropriately. The programmed workouts you see on the board are a guideline. When the workout starts, work quickly to a pace you feel you’re able to maintain for the duration of that workout. Once you’ve settled in, up your speed – lower the time cycle of your reps.
Here is where your gray matter – your conscious brain – comes in. You have to be able to feel the difference between good and bad technique. If you haven’t felt your technique going with increased speed, you’ll soon find out. You’ll miss lifts and reps, lose control of your swing on the pull-up bar or rings, land up in the box instead of on top of it. It’s the tail of the race car going too wide for the driver to bring it back, leaving the car in a spin.
You’ve got to slow down before that happens. Regain traction to bring that tail back in, and then ease back on the gas again. This time, holding your speed just under the previous attempt.
As you develop this control your power output begins to increase, and that’s where the results lie.
Will it result in some less than optimal technique? Absolutely, but that’s how you find your control. Will that place you at risk of injury? Unless you keep moving at a speed that is uncontrollable, it shouldn’t. That control is a tricky thing to develop. It’s partly what we as coaches are there for. But it’s important for you to develop it on your own too.
Finding that threshold is also finding the point of most discomfort. Find it, and hang out there for as long as you can!
Nutrition and training are only pieces of the health and fitness puzzle. If your eating and training are consistently good, but you still don’t look and feel the way you’d like to, one of the other pieces may need fixing. Most often, it’s the result of poor sleep.
Your body composition, mental acuity, digestion, skin health, mood states and physical performance are some of the components heavily dependent on sufficient sleep. Seven hours of peaceful sleep every night is the minimum needed to keep health and fitness problems at bay. If you’re getting less than that but feel like you’re getting enough sleep, you’re kidding yourself.
These are some signs that your sleep habits may need tweaking:
You’re Struggling with your Body Composition
Poor sleep can:
- Increase excess body fat
- Disrupt your feelings of hunger and satiety
- Increase caloric intake, especially from comfort foods
- Excess body can in turn reduce sleep quality making this a negative feedback loop
Your Mental Performance is Shaky
Sleep is especially important for the recovery and development of the central nervous system. Insufficient sleep can cause:
- Low mood states
- Attention deficit
- Impaired judgement
- Reduced alertness
- Mental acuity during exercise
You’re Prone to Sickness
Sleep is also responsible for keeping your immune system in check. Insufficient sleep results in:
- Increased inflammation
- Vulnerability to viruses and bacteria
- Greater stress to the cardiovascular system
- Inability to recover from colds and flu
Does any of this sound like you, but your eating and training is fairly on point? If so, your sleep habits may need tweaking. You should be aiming for seven hours of restful sleep a night. That is, seven hours of shut eye. Not seven hours from the time you get into bed until waking 😉
Controlling your nutrient intake by way of calculating your macronutrient (macro) or caloric intake undoubtedly helps to ensure you’re eating enough to support your levels of activity while preventing excess body fat, if you have the right mindset. There are an array of methods to determine those numbers, but today I’d like to touch on two ways of managing those numbers.
Prospective management involves calculating your macro/caloric intake numbers and then ensuring that your food is weighed and counted before you consume it. Aside from the calculation, this of course requires preparing meals and snacks ahead of time, having a food scale in the kitchen, and knowing how many of each type of macro you’ll be consuming for a particular amount of food.
With retrospective management you calculate how many macros/calories you consumed after having the food. As the day goes on you try to meet your intake requirements based on what you have already eaten and what you ‘have left’ to eat. In this instance you do still need to calculate your intake numbers in advance and have that plugged into an app or at the very least a spreadsheet, and you do still need to use a resource that provides the nutritional information for the food you’re eating.
As with everything, there are pros and cons to both methods. With prospective management you know what you’ve got to eat and you have either have it prepared in advance or you have your plate on the scale while dishing your food up. You’re less likely to eat more than you should. But, that does require some ‘work’ on your behalf.
There’s less prep work with retrospective nutrition management. The work comes in ensuring that you log the food you ate after every meal and snack. The downside is that you might end up with a big deficit in one of your macronutrients at the end of the day. You then end up ‘making it up’ with convenient sources of food, and convenient is rarely healthy.
A big plus to both methods is that they teach you about portion control. You eventually learn how to eyeball your portions and you also get better at listening to your body–you learn to eat when you hungry and stop eating before consuming too much. More importantly, both methods have the potential to work.
It all comes down to you, though. Which method suits your lifestyle and personality traits better? The better the fit, the more likely you are to sustain the habits. They aren’t quick fixes either. If you adhere to either method for at least 80% of the time, you’ll be setting yourself up for ongoing success.
Neither approach is laborious. You just need to understand the hows and whys, and that’s why we offer individually tailored nutrition coaching. Get in touch to enquire about that.