By Christopher Cudworth
As autonomic responses go, breathing places right up there with the best of them. You might be surprised to learn that breathing does have a bit of company in the autonomic nervous system however, which regulates heart rate, digestion, salivation, perspiration, pupillary dilation, micturition (pissing), sexual arousal (umm, you know that one) and swallowing.
That’s like the Hall of Fame of being alive. And in a typical run or ride, we probably experience all those sensations at some point, especially if we’re riding with someone who looks cute in their bike or run shorts.
However today we’re here to talk to you about breathing, which is highly recommended among the autonomic options listed above. Granted, the Good Lord, along with some really small creatures that learned to like oxygen, determined long ago that breathing was a good thing.
But let’s pause for a moment and think about the mechanics of breathing, so that we can appreciate exactly what it is going on when you take a breath.
Now, you can trust an organization such as the American Lung Association to explain it to you. Or you can simply trust me to tell you. And here goes.
Breathing with the experts
Here’s your description of breathing according to the American Lung Association. “Your lungs are part of a group of organs and tissues that all work together to help you breathe. This system is called the respiratory system. The main job of the respiratory system is to move fresh air into and get waste gases out of the body.”
Oh my gosh! That last bit suggests that your lungs help you fart! Well, I already covered that subject in yesterday’s We Run and Ride, so we won’t go any more deeply into that. So let’s focus on the “move fresh air” part of breathing, so that we learn something more from this blog than how funny it is to fart in the presence of others. Which is better known as breathing through you butt. Which really is a talent.
What it’s all about
Actually when you take a deep breath (as suggested in the title of this blog) all kinds of oxygen bits and nitrogen and all kind of other gasses that aren’t worth mentioning are sucked into your lungs. If you’re lucky the oxygen gets all jiggy with your lung tissues and is absorbed into the blood stream. From there it moves around your body carried by red blood cells that deliver oxygen to your muscles. That’s just one of the important functions. Your brain needs oxygen to survive too. So do a whole lot of other bodily organs. In fact a person who is dying or even officially dead may continue to breathe well after the rest of the autonomic functions sort of shut down. So the instinct to breathe is pretty powerful. It is perhaps one of the most powerful instincts known to all living things.
Swimming and breathing
If you want to test this instinct for yourself, take up swimming. That’s what I’ve done recently and let me share with you that the hardest thing about becoming a better swimmer is learning how to breathe. How can such a natural function become such a difficulty? Get in the pool and find out for yourself.
You learn the hard way how important it is to breathe when you don’t do it well. Your brain goes into this weird zone where it thinks it is going down for the count. So your head bobs up and your butt drops in the water. Short of standing up in the pool, you could not be in a less conducive position to propel yourself through the water.
The panic really starts if you don’t suck in some air. It’s rather amazing how such a short moment in time can seem so damned long. So you stop and flail like a dolphin with a diaper full of fish crap and look around the pool to see if anyone else is watching you.
But if you concentrate by breathing out through the nose things improve a little bit. For one thing, the bubbles aren’t so loud. Which to me is really an important part of the swimming experience. Otherwise the entire enterprise sounds as if you’re immersed in some crazy kid’s music video with insane orange and blue fishes boobling around your head while a highly repetitious bubble song plays in your head.
That’s not a recommended training environment. So breathe through your nose goddamnit. I said that for my own benefit by the way.
Once you get a breathing rhythm down you can actually swim a couple lengths of the pool. But if you get lazy and forget, the whole panic operation starts again and you can run out of oxygen in your lungs to the point where you entire body starts to sink into itself like an oblong black hole. Then you really do start to sink. See, a set of lungs full of oxygen helps you float. An empty set of lungs won’t.
Out of the water
Of course all these same principles apply in activities such as running and riding. Back when I won races people asked me all the time what I did to breathe correctly. In truth I had this weird pattern. It went like this: hehhh hehhh hehhh heehhhh…heeh heeh heeh heeehhhh. So I gues that’s a four count breathing system that covered about six strides. Seriously. That’s how I breathed.
It worked. Except when a side stitch came along. Then the breathing sounded like this: Heeehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh shit.
And I slowed to a stop, grabbed my side and tried to relax the diaphragm.
Not that diaphragm, silly boy or girl. Although I will admit that I once dated a woman who used one of those other diaphragms and it was a little like making love in a Volkswagen Beetle. You kept hitting your head on the roof, shall we say.
The diaphragm that regulates your breathing is both strong and delicate. If something comes along that sends it into spasm, it really hurts. Your whole chest convulses and you can’t breathe deep enough to keep the oxygen flowing. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. But most experts recommend trying to breathe with your belly to drive the motion rather than high up in the chest.
Breathing that way is in fact always recommended. Your breathing diaphragm is your friend, people. Don’t forget it.
Breathing on the bike
It’s important to govern your breathing when you’re on a bike as well. Understand that the typical road bike or tri-bike riding position is not necessarily conducive to optimal breathing. Some have even suggested that riding bibs are better for breathing than regular shorts because the shorts constrict your belly breathing? I’m not so convinced of that, but anything such as bib shorts that make it nearly impossible to go to the bathroom absolutely must be better for you right? I mean, don’t we all make sacrifices for our respective shorts, I mean sports?
More practically, please make sure that your handlebars are wide enough because that opens your chest for better breathing. So who knows?
Beyond that you can establish a rhythm for different types of riding. Uphill, don’t always breathe on the same pedal stroke. Instead try to spread your breathing out, as if you were smoothing over the effort.
Downhill you may find yourself holding your breath as you concentrate. That’s not really good either. Take a deep breath…
In a sprint you may not breathe so much as you hiss and spit and fight with all your might. Frankly that’s okay. Even runners who sprint 100 meters don’t breathe that much.
That’s because the gas we call oxygen is a lazy-assed element. It doesn’t go anywhere on its own. In the atmosphere it must either be sucked or blown by pressure systems. The same is true in your body. That’s why the autonomic nervous system works your lungs like a bellows, sucking and blowing and generally moving oxygen and carbon dioxide in and out of your body.
You really become conscious of breathing when you take up an un-sport such as yoga. Pretty much all you are doing is breathing so that your body goes into all sorts of contortions that cause you stretchy pain and teach you that you are a tight little monkey person with bad hip flexors. That’s yoga. So breathe.
So consider, having to breathe hard to exercise sort of sucks. But it really blows. Yet you should consider the alternatives before you get too upset about having to work with your autonomic nervous system on the issue of breathing. Without it, everything really slows down a bit. Just watch me in a pool. You’ll begin to believe in the merits of breathing. Real fast.
See you out there, fellow breathers.