The ceiling of the high-performance individual and the Average Joe/Jane are no longer mutually exclusive, as the keys to success of elite athletes are allowing people of all levels to excel. For about half a century, the fitness world has been dominated by the bigger, faster, stronger mentality. However, for the past decade or so the inclusion of practices with the attributes of smaller, slower, more deliberate movement and mindfulness, such as yoga, Tai-Chi, and meditation, have grown a broader appreciation for the unique benefits these activities offer. Among these practices, and at the root of each mentioned, is a common thread: breath control. This, in my eyes, is the beginning of a shift in fitness, performance training, and lifestyle that makes high-performance training accessible to all as we move away from the superficial and towards introspection – a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, our mind-body connection.
It should be no surprise that the powerhouse couple Laird Hamilton and Gabby Reece have integrated breath control as a focus in their novel performance and lifestyle program, XPT, Extreme Performance Training. I recently had the opportunity to participate in a local XPT workshop in Keene, Virginia, organized by two of the original coaches taught directly by Laird, Gabby, and the XPT team: Fabian Kuttner and Lindsay Ashmum.
Discovering the physical boundaries and the spaces within my body with each inhale and exhale was new. Beginning with a deep inhale through my nose. Feeling as if I was filling a balloon in my stomach, actively pulling air in as I pushed my belly button outwards. When I could no longer fill my stomach, I found new space on the sides of my torso as I flared out my ribs. After that space was filled, I further pulled air into my chest until I felt the physical rigidity of my body pushing back. Then, I held it all in… 4… 3… 2… 1… and slowly reversed the motion, exhaling through a small opening in my mouth as if I was blowing out the candles on my birthday cake, allowing both the passive recoil of my ribs and soft tissue to return to a relaxed state, and actively pushed every last bit of air out using my deep core muscles and diaphragm until I felt the once-filled balloon was completely deflated. Then, again, now with seemingly no air in my body, I held… 4… 3… 2… 1… and repeated, working up to 12-second holds.
This was just one technique Lindsay and Fabien walked the group through, called Box Breathing. It consisted of a 1:1:1:1 ratio, meaning one inhale: one hold: one exhale: one hold. It helped me to explore the limits of my breathing, the physical boundaries of my body with each inhale and exhale, and the unique sensations my mind and body experienced particularly with the breath holds.
“By staying conscious of the breath and spine as the foundation of all movement, we always know where we are, where we came from, and keep a steady sense of progression towards our goals,” says Lindsay.
Lindsay and Fabien then took the group through triangle breathing and super ventilation, both of which further expanded my understanding of the power behind both breathing — especially through the nose — and breath holding. Physiologically, nasal breathing causes a cascade of biological responses that I’m sure the ancient yogis, monks, and the ama all have a deep appreciation for. Each breath through the nose warms, humidifies, filters, and slows the air before it reaches the lungs improving quality of gas exchanges across the thin layers of tissue and blood vessels. In addition, air transported through the sinuses is mixed with a gas called nitric oxide that both further improves the body’s ability to transfer oxygen and carbon dioxide, as well as, acting as a defense against infection by fungus, bacteria, and viruses.
The science of breath holding is much more contentious and novel in its uses. Breath-hold training is most directly paired with water sports like free diving, spear fishing, and big wave surfing. However, research is coming out testing various training protocols that limit oxygen intake at normal pressure, known as Normobaric Hypoxic Training, as opposed to the well understood benefits of high altitude training often used by elite endurance athletes to increase their red blood cell count prior to competition at a site that is generally located at lower elevation. There’s no question that the ability to increase your breath hold has a direct carry over to water sports, but the use of breath hold training to enhance land-based activities like sprinting is a bit revolutionary and exciting. Regardless of the scientific outcomes, the more important piece of breath hold training is understanding the psychological stress associated with performing both high and low-intensity activities in an oxygen-deprived state.
I believe this circles back to the duality of the Ying and Yang and the understanding that we’re living in a fitness renaissance that is beginning to recognize the interconnectedness of our minds and bodies.
If you can take one thing from this post and put it in practice today it should be Box Breathing. The significance in investing time in breath work through this cycle, one inhale, one hold: one exhale: one hold, is in discovering the relationship of breathing with the heart, the mind, and the body as a whole. From the benefits of vasodilation and bronchodilation through nitric oxide caused by nasal breathing to the voluntary regulation of branches of the nervous system responsible for pulling us in and out of the fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest responses. I think it’s safe to say, devoting life to practicing breathing will have lasting effects that literally last a lifetime. Give yourself this gift, recognize your strengths, both physically and mentally, and accept you are built for high-performance living.