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#48 — Breathwork for Faster Recovery — Matthew Smith, EverAthlete

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#48 -- Breathwork for Faster Recovery -- Matthew Smith, EverAthlete
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Matthew Smith, DC, CES

Dr. Matt Smith is a sports chiropractor, strength coach, and the founder of EverAthlete, an online strength training, injury prevention, and recovery resource for outdoor enthusiasts. Matt has been a trusted coach and consultant to some of the best athletes and highest performers in the world, helping them navigate injuries and perform at their best. 

EverAthlete website: https://www.everathlete.fit/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/everathlete/?hl=en

Summary

During exercise, approximately 15% of the calories we burn is used for breathing.  That is oxygen that is unavailable for our muscles that propel us.  What if there was a way to be more efficient in breathing? What if that same skill in breathing would allow us to be more calm and recover faster?  To sleep better?  Wouldn’t that be a skill worth learning?

Overbreathing

  • Caused by stress:  shallow chest breathing 
  • Causes stress:  mouth breathing increases stress
  • Poor breathing habits

How?

  • Belly breathe
  • Breath slower
  • Nasal breathing
  • Get comfortable

How to start

  • Everyday life
  • Low intensity exercise
  • Push the envelope

Videos:

——Notes on discussion with Matt (not a transcript)–

We are interested in understanding your perspective on how fitness impacts health and longevity, and on how health impacts fitness.

Matt is a sports chiropractor and strength coach.  Worked in athletic performance for 15 years.  Founded Everathlete….now an online platform focused on helping athletes improve outdoor pursuits:  hiking, swimming, biking, running.  Training programs and recovery programs.  Started with a focus on injury treatment and prevention for athletes…migrated into a performance training company designed to meet people where ever they are, and helping them get to where they want to go.  We use a wide variety of resources including strength training, soft tissue therapy, injury prevention techniques, breathwork (as a tool for recovery).

We will be recording two podcasts with Matt.  (1) breathwork and (2) performance training for adventure athletes including injury prevention.

Worked with a wide variety of athletes:  olympians and world champions, as well as many masters athletes.

Breathwork: Several books have come out in the last few years.  Oxygen Advantage, Breath are the most notable.

Q:  What is breathwork?

Breathwork is the practice of breathing to improve one’s health.  Used it heavily personally and with athletes.  Deliberate practice of breath to improve your state of being.  Incorporating a breath practice to improve your overall health and performance.  

Based on a couple principles: 

  • (1) we need oxygen to survive and compete, and we need to be efficient in the capture, transport and utilization of oxygen to produce energy, and
  • (2) we need to be good at recovering from training to get the adaptations we did the work to get.  Stress is something we have to deal with and work around and thrive in, and we live with stress in our everyday lives.  And training adds to the stress our bodies must contend with.  Recovery is the transition to a restful state that gives us access to the benefits from our training.   So the skill of recovery is critical for the high-performing athlete, and breathwork is a tool for recovery.

Breathwork allows us to access the parasympathetic state of recovery….to shut down the sympathetic state and transitioning to a rest and recovery state to begin the recovery and adaptation from the training.

Benefits from an immediate, real-time perspective and longer-term perspective:(1) real-time benefits of being more efficient in the usage of oxygen in our muscles(2) improved ability to recover and destress our bodies in general to facilitate better recovery and adaptation, which should lead to higher performance over time.

Break this into chunks:

  • (1) why it works
  • (2) benefits to athletic performance and general health
  • (3) what are the practices to adopt to get the benefits

Q:  Why does breathwork work?

Lot’s of different things can be done.  In terms of how do we improve the oxygenation of our tissues, and how to we improve our ability to get oxygen out of lungs and into our tissues.  It can be counter-intuitive since oxygen in lungs does not mean the same thing as oxygen in tissues.  This is the hardest thing for people to get.

Q:  So just breathing faster does not result in more oxygen getting into the body?

Faster breathing does not result in “super oxygenation” of the blood.  It just removes extra CO2, which makes it harder to capture oxygen from breathing.

Q: Isn’t “air hunger” related to CO2?

Yes, being comfortable with higher CO2 in the body is a skill that we can learn, which then provides benefits to the body.  Generally, people have a low tolerance to CO2 which results in chronic over breathing.

I think the root cause behind why we over breath is our general state of being over stressed.  Driving to work, dealing with kids, spouse.  Many stressors everyday.  And without awareness of practices to use breathwork to move out of the stressed state into a restful state, we just stay over stressed all the time.

Q: I’d heard that just habitual breathing in poor ways, such as chest breathing or shallow breathing because of bad posture, then leads to stress.  A stressful way of breathing leads the body to become stressed, and then all the over stresses compound on top to create even more stressful breathing to make the situation worst.  True?

Yes, poor breathing mechanics can create a vicious cycle that feeds back onto itself.   Poor posture and poor breathing mechanics leads to more chest breathing and less diaphragmatic breathing.  Using neck and ribcage muscles to expand the ribcage to breath instead of the diaphragm is naturally stressful on the body.  Leads to shallow breathing that leads to more rapid breathing which switches on a stress response in the body.

The practice the skill of getting a good, deep breath is a skill we can lose.

The Foundation:  With my clients, I start with 

  • (1) breath mechanics
  • (2) cadence
    And then
    (3) we focus on getting used to a higher level of CO2  

Q: Here’s a bundle of things to discuss:

(1) These practices of breathing seem to come from yoga and meditation.  The question of why it works is hard to understand.  But it is true that our brains control our bodies but it is also true that our bodies have an impact on our brains.  Everyone already knows this…anyone who has ever forced themselves to smile finds that they feel happier afterwards.  

(2) So the “why it works” would be interesting but the fact that it is known to work means we can just get started with these practices to have these desired effects on our minds and bodies.  

(3) Unfortunately, we have already learned bad habits that take advantage of this brain-body connection, and we are over breathing, over stressed, and not recovering as well as we could be as a result.  We need to unlearn these bad habits, and return to not just breathing properly when we are thinking about it but all the time, without thinking….including when we sleep.

(4) And let’s also touch on nasal breathing.

Q: Just dive in, Dr. Matt.

Our autonomic ability to breath properly is not great, just looking at our society.  Impacting longevity and quality of life.  Over breathing seems to be related to many diseases.

The practice of slowing down breathing….lessen the amount of breathing throughout the day.  You can do it through deliberate breath practices.  You can also use Wim Hof breathing to stimulate alertness.  But slowing down our breathing can have big health effects.

Nasal breathing is a primary was of slowing the breath.  Nasal breathing has other benefits such as adding nitros oxide into the air we breath, which leads to blood oxygen delivery. 

Use BreathRight strips during sleep….and tape mouth during sleep to encourage nasal breathing during sleep.  It helps to begin the transition to nasal breathing to get improved health from improved sleep.  And getting better sleep is good for recovery for training.

Sleep apnea can be caused by mouth breathing during sleep.

Dr. Matt’s sleep has been dramatically improved.

People dealing with asthma, COPD can use breathwork to improve breathing.  There are multiple ways to overcome congestion or swollen sinuses.  Lot’s of YouTube videos on this subject. 

Use nasal breathing, and breathing slowly, will let the body stop reacting to a co2 level that is lower than necessary.

Q:  If you breath in a less stressful way all day, then do you recover better all day?

Yes.  Your breath patter will adapt to what you are doing.  But you also can create a less stressful environment by controlling your breath.   Lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure.
Sleep hygiene can include preparing for lower stress and a relaxation breathing.  Be calm.  Manipulate the nervous system through breathing practices.  

Q:  What is the difference between using breath to calm vs. activating for alertness?

Cadence patterns are different.  Calming is more common a need for athletes rather than activating alertness or stress level.  Athletes tend to already be over activated.
1-to-2 ratio of inhale timing to exhale timing.  5-10 minutes.
Hyperventalating such as Wim Hof mouth breathing rapid breathing with breath holds is a way to activate.  Reverse the cadence patter to get alert vs. calming.  Alertness and focus improves dramatically.

Q:  How to use nasal breathing to improve athletics?

Use nasal breathing as a training aid.  Like wearing a weight vest to get stronger, then take the weight vest off to perform better.
I think there is a place for mouth breathing in athletics.  Your ability to nasal breath is an indicator of fitness, and doing nasal breathing can help you get stronger.
At the beginning, use nasal breathing during low stress training days, just to get a little more out of the easy session.  Don’t use it during intervals if it would reduce the effect of the intervals.
Plus, nasal breathing can help you maintain intensity discipline when you WANT to do a zone 1 or 2 ride.  Nasal breathing can help you manage your pace and getting adaptation to breathing allows you to get more out of the easy sessions.

 Q:  Anything else?

Be careful with changing your breathing.  Experiment but don’t take chances.  Don’t hold your breath while outside riding or running.  Try it while riding on Zwift and just be careful.

The ever curious athlete who demands answers.
About the Author
Curious athlete who demands answers. Husband to Susan (moxiemoms.com). Father of 3 daughters. Athletic pursuits over time, in reverse order: cycling, skiing, mountaineering, rock climbing, triathlon, golf, tennis, football.

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