Understanding how the breath impacts your physical, mental and emotional states can give you an edge in competition, training and life.
There are few people who have studied how breathing affects performance more than Rachel Vickery. Vickery teaches elite athletes to understand how their breathing affects their performance.
Matt Kredich, the Head Coach of the University of Tennessee, has been working with Vickery for the past year, “We’ve seen a real change in awareness around breathing, but so much more than that as well,” explains Kredich.
“Rachel has never made it about the breath or breathing, but has used breathing mechanics as a diagnostic tool AND therapy for addressing different and larger issues.”
“The one common theme we’ve seen is that dysfunctional breathing has both causes and effects that we need to address, and she’s helped us become much more aware of these relationships.”
“We use simple strategies that range from a specific breathing program for some, to a general focus on breathing mechanics during dryland and our prepare to swim routine, to some individual work with athletes who have dysfunctional patterns during periods of high stress.”
“It’s really helped me as a coach be able to look at the athletes and understand them better and differently. I find myself “reading” their breathing much more frequently, and this piece of information has proven to be invaluable in giving many of these swimmers the kind of coaching they need in that moment.”
Vickery comes from a high performance background representing New Zealand internationally in artistic gymnastics. After her athletic career she initially set out to be a sports medicine doctor, but quickly realized she enjoys working with people rather than referring them to others, “I wanted to be a little more influential rather than just seeing athletes and referring them on,” Vickery told SwimSwam.
“I’ve always had a real interest in movement, so I became a physiotherapist, which is how I was originally trained. Very much in the traditional way.”
In her last year of school she suffered a broken leg. This limited the type of work she could do. For this reason she began working as a hospital-based physiotherapist with patients faced with different respiratory challenges.
In time she moved to working three days a week as a sports physio at a high-performance sport clinic, and two days a week in a private breathing disorders clinic.
Although she was working with two very different populations she saw similar issues in both, “I was actually seeing the same problem in both contexts. I was just looking at it through different glasses,” explains Vickery. “So I was treating it quite differently, when actually it was the same underlying thing.”
“So that really started my journey into how breathing mechanics fit in with sport performance.”
Working with this new perspective she also became more acutely aware of how mental and emotional states effect a person’s breathing patterns. It was because of this she continued her education in mind-body healthcare.
Every Breath Counts
Many athletes tend to only look at their breathing when it comes to what is happening in training or competitions. Looking at these different experiences and having strategies for them is very helpful, but an important factor that is often ignored is the breathing baseline.
Vickery gives an example of a PGA golfer she works with. He came to her after hitting a slump, losing his PGA card and moving back home in debt, “He came in to see me, and said, ‘I need to tell you I made the decision this morning to walk away from golf. I’m done. But because I already made this appointment I thought I should keep it.’”
Vickery goes on to describe the conversation in more detail, “He said, ’I don’t need to learn this breathing crap because the sports psych has been doing this with me for years and it doesn’t work.’”
“So I say, “Okay cool. Tell me again how you’ve been doing that.”
“He said, ’Well, what she teaches me is part of my pre-shot routine. I step back off the ball. I do three calm breaths into my belly, just to calm me down. Then address the ball and take the shot.’”
“So how many shots in a round of golf?” He said, ‘About 70.’ I said, “Great. So how long would you be out on the course for?” He said, ‘About four and a half hours.’ So I said, “Okay cool. What you’re telling me, is of the four and a half thousand breaths that you’re going to do out on the course in that round, 210 of them are nice and controlled, but the rest you are leaving completely to chance.”
“And he kind of just looks at me and is like, ‘Huh. Maybe I should get this breathing stuff sorted, you know?’”
“Suddenly, he understood that it was actually how he was breathing all of the time. Every step he was taking in his walking between his shots. That was the stuff that was dropping cortisol into his system. That was the stuff that was getting him more and more anxious.”
Strategies are good, but the biggest effects can be seen when changing where you are operating from throughout your day. This is an example of how your breathing baseline can have a significant affect on both your mental and emotional states.
Biomechanics of the Breath
“For our swimmers, it’s not just how do you breathe when you’re actually swimming, training or racing, it’s, ‘How are you breathing the rest of the time through your day?’” says Vickery.
“You do 15-20,000 breaths in a day. The hour of breathing that you might do in a training session, or the five breaths that you take before a race are kind of irrelevant compared to the other 15-20,000 in terms of how that changes your operating state.”
Those 15-20,000 breaths can be significant when it comes to muscular fatigue and injury as well. The biomechanics of how you breathe can greatly affect this.
Vickery brings up on one of the male swimmers referred to her with shoulder problems as an example, “Classic male swimming physique with a big overblown upper chest, really hyper inflated. He was breathing very shallow with his upper chest at resting and in talking with me. He was also a mouth breather.”
“He’s got a dysfunctional breathing pattern because he breathes shallow at rest. He’s using upper chest breathing muscles that he needs for swimming both to take a breath and also create stability and power through the water. He’s already done 15-20,000 breaths using those muscles. He then needs to use those muscles to create power and stability in fly – he was just completely overloading his muscles and in his words “his shoulders would just blow out”. We fixed his shoulder problem, which had been resistant to traditional sports physio input by some really good physios, by fixing his breathing mechanics.”
Realizing that you are overusing the same muscles needed to perform through dysfunctional breathing learning how to breath more effectively is often seen in a different light.
“He didn’t have anxiety and he didn’t have the emotional underlying stuff. He had the more practical biomechanical physical side to breathing. And it can absolutely be just this.”
Creating Positive Change
Some of the most common symptoms of dysfunctional breathing she sees in swimmers include:
- Poor tolerance to underwater work
- Loss of feel of the water
- Difficulty getting breathing in
- Chest tightness
- Premature fatigue /decreased power output
- Feeling anxious
- Tight neck and shoulders
- Reactionary (loss of temper, poor emotional control)
Some of the most common causes of dysfunctional breathing she sees in swimmers include:
- Chronic mouth breathing
- Underlying asthma
- Low blood sugar
- Low self-esteem / body image
- Fear of failure
- Fear of not being good enough
- Financial pressure
- Family pressure
- Fear of success
Because the causes of breathing dysfunction is a multilayered subject Vickery has come up with a pyramid model to look at the hierarchy of managing breathing dysfunction in a more simple and prioritized way.
What are practical ways that someone can address their breathing patterns to make meaningful change?
“I would have someone do two things,” explains Vickery. “One is a ten minute breathing exercise while lying down. They are trying to really teach themselves how to hold the upper chest still and confine their breath to their belly. Trying to overcome where their brain is so used to their upper chest moving and just working through that.”
The first part of making effective change is by developing a stronger awareness of the specific behavior. The next is making having practical ways of incorporating that change into daily life. One of the strategies Vickery has used is getting those she works with to put up little stars in their environment to remind them to be aware of how they are breathing.
“They can put them in, their car, their computer, their cells, their tablets, their water bottles, on their watch,” explains Vickery. “When they see a star they do a quick body scan.”
Once they bring their awareness to the present moment they can create change, “Then they drop their chest and shoulders, breathe out, making sure that they’re breathing through their nose. Three breaths into their belly, trying to replicate the same feeling like they had when they’re lying down.”
“Then they carry on with what they’re doing. They might be driving along, they stop at a light, they see the star and they just realize that they’ve been holding their breath for the last 200 meters. The more times you catch yourself through the day, the more you start to become aware of it. The more you change it, the faster it will become automatic.”
She also asks people to bring awareness to their thoughts at the same time to begin to understand how their breath and their thoughts are linked in intimate ways, “Immediately think, what am I actually thinking about? Often we think that our breathing follows our mind, but often we can flip that the other way and we let our mind follow our breathing. So if our breathing is calm and relaxed our mind will be the same.”
“These practical strategies can be really helpful, but to get lasting change it’s essential you address the underlying cause of why the breathing mechanics were altered in the first place otherwise the problem will keep coming back. I can’t emphasize this enough. That’s where the magic really lies!”
Paying attention to how you breathe can not only improve performance, but has the potential to increase the quality of your life in many different ways.