*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study

12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

"Breath is Fuel."

BREATH IS FUEL. Repeat after me: "BREATH IS FUEL."

Continuing our Summer '08 theme scheme, that's the theme for this week's rides -- two (maybe even three, if I have time) brand new rides plus one of my favorites from the archives ("Just Breathe."), all designed to 1) improve your awareness of your breathing in general, and 2) improve the efficiency of your breathing techniques.

As we kick this off, behold the epic breathing post I've been promising you for a month now. Here's how this is gonna roll:

When we breathe, we bring oxygen to our blood, muscles, nerves, and our brain. Sounds like something we should be doing, eh? Well, the WAY we breathe has a direct correlation to our physical and mental performance. Breathing takes energy to do: every time we breathe, we expend energy. So if we breathe deeper, more rhythmical and coordinatedly: we don't need to expend so much energy to do it. But this doesn't just happen on its own; we have to work at it -- first, by being aware of how we're doing it.

I *love* breathing. Let me tell you why. It's very simple - and there's power in the simplicity of it. When we are well-oxygenated, we are calm. Our perceived exertion is low. We are empowered. We feel that we can "do." Physically and mentally, we perform better when we waste less energy breathing inefficiently.

Breathing should be the easiest thing in the world -- so easy that we don't have to think about it, right? No. How we handle our breath is directly related to how we handle our lives, and how we handle changes in our lives. Controlled, rhythmic breathing enhances our own image of what we are capable of being. I don't just mean this on a bike -- I mean all the time: when your boss is a jerk, when you get bad news, when you bomb an exam... whatever. Every breath is an opportunity to re-focus and rise to the challenge at hand.

Pretty cool thought: Breathing is the only physiological life process that can be both involuntary and voluntary. When we stop thinking about our breathing, our body starts breathing on its own --pretty irregular and haphazardly, at that. Yes, you'll survive -- but will you excel? So, you've got a choice to make: You can either allow your breath to run haphazardly, or you can make it part of your awareness and coordinate movement and breath harmoniously.

Another pretty cool thought: We have total control over improving our breathing. So much of our physiology and physical abilities are inherited -- but our breathing efficiency and lung capacity (which is what distinguishes elite athletes from the rest of us mere mortals) is directly under our control.

So let's do it.

Before we talk about efficient breathing, let's talk about inefficient breathing. Most of us breathe with our upper chest -- and we know this because we can see our upper chest/shoulders rising and falling as we breathe. And when we do this, we produce short and shallow breaths that are inadequate to oxygenate our muscles, nerves, and brains -- and we create tension and stress in our bodies.

To understand why this is so, let's consider a bit of anatomy. We have two groups of breathing (respiratory) muscles: PRIMARY and SECONDARY.
Primary respiratory muscles (all located in the torso):
1) Diaphragm (responsible for 75% of our breathing)
2) Intercostals (located between the ribs)
3) Abdominal muscles

All three of these are large and strong -- they need to be: they work up to 22,000 times per day! Just as the heart beats constantly to keep us alive, the primary muscles keep on' truckin' without fatigue to give us oxygen and keep us alive. I'm all about that.

Secondary respiratory muscles (located in upper chest):
1) Scalenus - front of neck, attached to uppermost ribs
2) Pectoralis minor - chest
3) Sternocleidomastoid - runs from behind the ear across the neck
4) Upper trapezius - from mid-skull to shoulder blades

In contrast, the secondary muscles are smaller and tire quickly. Now we see why we don't want to ask these muscles to do the majority of our breathing, yes?

That said, here's how EFFICIENT breathing with the primary muscles works: At rest: Diaphragm looks like a parachute, rounded upwards.
Inhalation: Diaphragm flattens (moves downwards into abdominal cavity). Abdominal muscles relax, allowing the volume of the abdominal cavity to expand as it takes in air... and as the diaphragm moves, all the abdominal organs are rolled/massaged, squeezing nutrients into and out of them. (Admit it: that's cool, and you know it.) Exhalation: Abdominal muscles contract, forcing air out of the lungs. Diaphragm forced back up into parachute-dome formation; carbon dioxide (as a waste product) is forced out. Relaxed, freely moving intercostals (between the ribs) help this process.


The key to efficient breathing is learning to use the abdominal muscles to assist the diaphragm. On the bike, this begins with your setup. We want the hip, shoulder, and ear to be aligned. Jaw relaxed (teeth not touching). Soft tongue resting on the roof of your mouth (opening the nasal passage). NOW we can breathe easily.

First, get used to feeling your abdomen move as you breathe. Try an exercise I've done in class several times, and certainly will do during some of my classes this week: Place your hands with thumbs resting on your belly button and fingers on the lower abs. As you inhale, relax your abdominal muscles, allowing your stomach to make space for the diaphragm to drop down (and allows the lower lobes of the lungs to expand). As you exhale, contract the abs to assist the diaphragm as it moves up and forces air from the lungs. Pay attention to how the abdomen feels as it expands and contracts. Later, with your hands on the handlebar, you can visualize this abdominal expansion and contraction to help orient yourself to breathing with those same muscles.

Here are some more exercises/games that I'm going to play in this week's rides:
1) "Tense then Relax"
Squint your eyes. Notice what happens to the diaphragm. You may feel the diaphragm jump slightly, restricting its movement. Relax the muscles around the eyes; feel the diaphragm open up and air flows in/out freely. Try this with any other muscle -- upper back, lower back, jaw. Bonus: Tensing and relaxing a muscle will automatically result in a lowered heart rate. Try this on heavy hills! It's very cool.

2) "Puff and Relax"
Try to think about truly relaxing your abdomen on the inhale - not letting it HANG, but actively puffing it out. Many people think that muscles get stronger by "tightening" or "keeping it in" -- it's totally not true. When we ride, we do NOT suck in our abdominals -- that keeps them from freely moving, and keeps us from breathing! We maintain core stability by bearing down and engaging the pelvic floor... but we do not hold our abs tight. Muscles get stronger when they move. By relaxing the abdomen on the inhale, we can then CONTRACT the abdominal muscles on the exhale. That movement is what will work those core muscles.

3) "Relaaaaaaax your Lower Back."
I'm not going to say it like that - just, as an aside, I used to take this ridiculously intense body sculpting class at a dance studio in DC where I went to college - with this former Mr. Universe with a thick somewhere-European accent. During the warm-up, he'd say: "Relooooox your lower boooooooock" and "Move those hips front and booock, front and boooock..." and it was hilarious. Ok, moving on. While we want a STRAIGHT back (we ride hinged forward at the hip, not the mid-back), we do NOT want a tight back. When we tighten the back muscles, we thrust the chest forward and constrict all but a small portion of the lungs. If, instead, we "reloooooooox your lower booooooock" (heh), and breathe into our backs (observing the gentle contraction and relaxation), we trigger a nervous system response that says, "Hey, Body, chill out. Everything is okay." Heart rate drops.

I do this periodically throughout the day -- for example, when the 6 train is about to ruin my life (by making me late to teach you guys) --and it really does work.

4) Breath in Motion
Coordinate your breathing with your pedal strokes. Just decide which part of the pedal stroke to breathe on -- on a flat road, maybe you want to take 5 pedal strokes to breathe in and 5 pedal strokes to breathe out. On a hill, inhale on every other pedal stroke while you exhale on every other pedal stroke, keeping the heart rate steady. During jumps, inhale as the body goes up and exhale as the body goes down, matching the rhythm of body movement with the breath. If you inhabit the rhythm, your 45 minutes will not only FLY by... but think how much more efficiently you will be oxygenating yourself!

5) Exteeeeeeeeend the Exhalation.
Many people "accept" that they should breathe deeply - whoooosh, air in, abdomen expand.... and then they drop the concept after that. The exhalation is JUST as important. By concentrating on the breath on the way out, we trick our breathing into becoming THAT much deeper and more efficient. With a long, smooth breath on the way out, our HR drops and we maintain control that way, too.

By controlling our HR, calming and soothing ourselves, we can then reach down a little bit deeper - expanding the limits we've set for ourselves. Make every breath count.


Courtney said...

I read in the review of The Incredible Hulk that the hulk (the human version, cant remember his name) needs to keep his heart rate below a certain point so as not to become the green monster. He even uses breathing techniques.
Which led me to wonder.... Does he read your blog/and or have a heartrate monitor?

Morrissey said...

Great Class Melissa!!!!!!!!! SO glad to be back into spinning action!