Breathe for Life

Definition of Breath

“It has often been said the only correct breath we take is our first.” –Unknown Author. That’s pretty crazy, right? Enter Brett B. Clark, P.T., D.P.T., Ph.D. of Life Strength Physical Therapy. Brett specializes in running and endurance athletes, but also has a very broad patient population from geriatric to neurologic diagnoses. I asked Brett about breathing and its importance; he had a lot to say but the quote above was his first thought. I absolutely love him and I send all of my clients to him. I often consult with him if a client has an injury prior to writing their programs to ensure the most effective results are feasible. He further added, “improper breathing leads to overuse of accessory muscles of inspiration and a host of physical maladies, including, but not limited to thoracic outlet syndrome.” But it all makes sense, regardless of how technical it may all seem: breathing is important. Breathing is life. But, with each breath we take could we be doing it all wrong?

Breathing and Running

I can’t even remember where or how I came across the article “Running on Air: Breathing Technique” by Budd Coates and Claire Kowalchik, but it was earlier in the year and truly got things churning for me. I sent the article right over to Brett because of our past conversations in an attempt to decipher my body.

Essentially, in the article, Coates talks about how your breathing while running may be causing injuries due to the exhalation and foot strike coinciding with the lack of engagement of your core muscles. He explains that when you exhale you may be pounding the ground with the same foot (two to three times your body weight!) each time causing not only possible imbalances, but perhaps overuse injuries as well. “Running on Air” also talks about research from University of Utah’s Dennis Bramble, Ph.D. and David Carrier, Ph.D.,

“…the impact stress is greatest when your foot strikes the ground at the beginning of an exhalation. This is because when you exhale, your diaphragm and the muscles associated with the diaphragm relax, creating less stability in your core. Less stability at the time of greatest impact makes a perfect storm for injury.”

When you think about your running style, and slow down your running, does this seem like a pattern for you? Does the same foot strike at the beginning of your exhalation? Focus on your belly breathing (more below), and try to create a pattern as Coates describes as a 3:2 pattern—when you inhale for 3 counts and exhale for only 2.

I started seeing Brett years ago when I was training for a half marathon. Because I was unable to run without pain, I had to be humble enough not to run the race. This year, as the Athleta local sponsored athlete, I participated in my first Iron Girl. Obviously, my biggest concern was the running. Although I wasn’t able to run completely pain free (stupid downhill), I was able to breathe and conquer the race and my goals in memory of my friend, Rene. When the running got tough, I focused harder on breathing to cross the finish line and achieve one of my greatest accomplishments thus far.

Why the heck am I writing about breathing?

Earlier this year I learned about the importance of breathing. Since then, my education on breathing has grown tremendously, and I’m still learning! I’ve always struggled with stress. I have even learned more about my body through strength training which taught me to have a better connection and actually LISTEN to it. But, I still had a disconnect somewhere.

I began a rest period in early January, with no pressing, in an attempt to learn more about some pain that I was experiencing in my shoulder and sometimes my pec. After a time, I was able to get back to pressing kettlebells and work on my strength but every now and then the issue flared up. I needed to relax. Breathe. Get rid of crap in my brain. The typical recommendation was yoga/meditation, which I haven’t been able to do because I am unable to relax or shut my brain off—I’m kind of a replica of my Mom. I know how important relaxing is, and I want to do it, but I still struggle. I found something that works for me though: I attended the Functional Movement Certification (in the middle of a wonderful April snowstorm in Minneapolis) and learned all about crocodile breathing and rolling and how it truly works like magic to reconnect your body—specifically all of your core muscles. It all started to make sense, and reiterated how connected your body truly is. CLICK! Essentially, improper breathing altered the position of a rib, pushing up and tightening my scalene, impinging my shoulder, and at my worst stressful times also radiating around to the top of my shoulder blade. Stupid stress. Enter more education.

My trainer, Joe Sansalone, instituted a new program based on Tim Anderson’s books Bulletproof and Original Strength. I immediately went home and got the most recent book and it has changed my life. Tim introduces the importance of crocodile breathing, among other exercises that go back to basics to reconnect your body. If you have children, consider how they developed from being a baby unable to move, trying to reach with their hands, creeping, crawling, etc. When I asked Tim about breathing, he said,

“Many of us breathe using our accessory muscles, our emergency muscles. We are living in a perpetual state of ‘fight or flight.’ By doing so, we are actually amplifying the day to day stresses we encounter in this ‘gotta have it now’ world. All of this extra stress contributes to poor posture, anxiety, inflammation and pain. We were not meant to live in a perpetual emergency state. We were made to ‘rest and digest’ more often than not.

Relearning how to breathe, learning how to use our diaphragm, can be the biggest key to unlocking our health. We can never truly enjoy and know health if we are always over stressed because we keep ourselves in an emergency state of mind and body. We were meant to rest and digest, to enjoy life, to be healthy. We were meant to breathe in such a way that every breath satisfies, soothes, and regenerates the body. There is wisdom in the phrase, ‘Take time to stop and smell the roses.’ This phrase is about resting from the stress of life. It is about enjoying the small things in life, like beauty. It is about restoration, the kind of restoration that can only be brought about by breathing the way we were created to breathe.”

I’m a super busy person and I overwhelm myself with over commitments, which results in stress. Then, my body begins to revolt and if I don’t listen I end up sick… It’s a vicious cycle that I’ve had to tweak and continue to learn about. It’s all about finding balance. Now, crocodile breathing is my go to, especially on a stressful day. Each day I attempt to begin my day with at least crocodile breathing, if not the entire Original Strength regiment. I also absolutely live by my coffee time first thing in the morning to relax and settle my mind—I don’t quite like the smell of roses, but coffee…. Now that is my comfort. Figure out what works best for you, and ensure that you put your health as a priority—I know I’ve said it before in prior articles: we only have ONE body!

Belly Breathing

So, now you want to know more about breathing, right? And, what is this crocodile breathing? Essentially it is belly breathing, deemed as so because it emphasizes that the breath originates in your tummy, not your chest. Put your hand on your belly and one on your chest. Take a breath in and see which hand moves initially. Your goal is to take a breath in through your nose while expanding your belly out—think “food baby,” “beer belly,” whatever you want to call it. Let it hang out—how big can your belly get? Then, let your breath out. Try that at least 10 times focusing on initiating with your belly beginning the breath.

The science of breathing is pretty interesting as our bodies dispose of excess carbon dioxide to obtain an optimal pH. This balance can be easily altered by life’s “crap!” Have you ever been scared? Stressed (HA!)? Breathing changes immediately in these situations. Think about being in pain—your entire breathing pattern changes and your pH is altered because of the excess carbon dioxide in your body.

Here’s another scenario: think about when do something tough (most of my clients have done this at some point, including myself)—the first thing that happens is that your breathing is sacrificed for the movement. You hold your breath, and THEN the movement is completed with your breath still held tightly at the end.

Have you seen this before: chewing gum while working out? I actually know people who prefer it! Honestly, I’m a true blonde and cannot fathom trying to do something intense while chomping on gum. Think of the breathing pattern that this creates. Can someone legitimately chew gum while breathing appropriately? Typically, I focus on breathing in through my nose and out my mouth which would mean I would end up spitting my gum out at someone…

Lion’s Breath

Here’s another resource that changed my life. I literally loved immediately because of the effects: laughter and relief. When I began to look at it more, I learned that although it is freaking hilarious, it truly does release a lot of crap out of your body in one big, “HAAAAAAAAA!” I will be accepting photos on!

Where to go from here?

Don’t over think it too much! Lay prone on the floor—face down—prop up your forehead with your hands. Breathe, expand your belly and touch the floor with it. Exhale as long as possible without keeling over. This is the pattern you need to reiterate into your body. When you have a minute during the day, just put your hand on your belly and breathe.