The Oxygen Advantage breathing programme first addresses breathing pattern disorders (BPD). These typically being over-breathing, upper chest breathing, mouth-breathing. As with Chi Running, every-day postures affect your movement so every-day breathing affects it too. Standing posture is a base point for efficient movement. Breathing at rest, that is “…quiet, effortless, soft, through the nose, abdominal, rhythmical and gently paused on exhale” (Patrick McKeown – The Oxygen Advantage) , is the base point and foundation for efficient breathing. In order to improve breathing efficiency during sport, you first have to address breathing at rest. Studies also show that addressing BPD reduces the risk of injury. Breathing at rest should have a relaxed, effortless out-breath – think of meditation.
The Oxygen Advantage practice of reduced breathing at rest (taking less air into the body) without creating tension or restricting the breathing muscles, helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, regeneration, recovery, earthing, gathering energy). This is an excellent body sensing exercise. However, if you reduce breathing too much you can create tension in the body and mind and activate the sympathy nervous system (fight or flight). This exercise also helps reset the brain’s breathing centre to allow the body to tolerate more CO2. Without the correct balance of CO2 in the body, the blood will hold on to more O2 (oxygen), restricting the the amount of O2 released to cells.
First practice total nasal breathing during an easy walk. Then, when comfortable with this, transition into a light, first gear run whilst hardly increasing breath-rate. The aim is to keep in mind a ‘gathering/earthing’ feeling. Total nasal breathing encourages deep (not big) diaphragmatic breathing, calms the mind, improves concentrating and sleep – earthing, restoring, rest and recovery. It’s important to not to think of ‘belly breathing’. I’ve often seen people actively trying to push their belly out.
When you comfortable with the above, you could introduce breath-holds. Please be aware however that there are a number of contraindications such as pregnancy, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes that need to be considered so make sure you check with your GP or health professional before you practice any strong breath-holding. Breath-holds further increase tolerance to CO2 both physiologically and psychologically. This helps reduce breathlessness when running and delays onset of lactate build up amongst many other things, enabling you to become more energy efficient. Research also shows that breath-holds improve respiratory muscle strength.
The other important element to the breath is rhythm – our body loves rhythm, heart-rate, breath-rate… This is an important reason why cadence (amount of steps per minute) should be constant regardless of pace, so that the rhythm of the breath is constant too. Forget talking as a means to set your aerobic pace. Talking is over-breathing plus the rhythm is all over the place! Rhythm is important in terms of heart-rate variability (HRV), the gap between heartbeats. Smooth, rhythmical breathing encourages a high coherence and helps reduce the amount of stress hormones (ie cortisol) released.
As movement becomes more challenging, metabolic rate increases and the greater the amount of air the body needs. When we switch from gathering to issuing in our practice we use more of the fire and air elements and will have a more emphasised out-breath – either through the nose or mouth. You may find in first gear you have a relaxed, longer out breath (gathering) but when running a hill or interval there is a sharper out breath at the start of the exhale (issuing). Imagine if you were throwing a punch or swinging a kettlebell. When running at a quicker pace as the foot strikes the ground you will effectively ‘push’ the breath out of the body. This could be a reason why it is often a good idea to use an odd number breath count. However, I advise to follow rather than force the breath as everyone’s level of fitness and genetic make-up is different. Forcing a number of counts can often cause you to over-breath or run out of breath both of which we are looking to avoid.