Could breathing better make you faster?

The part of breathing we generally think about is all to do with enough oxygen getting to the right places fast enough for us to do what we want to. Our bodies are pretty good at this in the absence of any serious health issues.

But you probably don’t realise our breathing also has a major impact on our overall posture and movement and our nervous system, particularly that crucial balance we need between our ‘ready for action’ stress response versus rest, recover and repair.

Breathing in sport is becoming hot news! We put emphasis on strength training especially when it comes to legs, but does anyone really target the breathing muscles?

The case for breathing training

In the last couple of decades it was discovered that like any other muscles our breathing muscles fatigue, swimming being the biggest culprit here. When they fatigue, there then follows a literal blood steal reflex shifting blood from the leg/arms to the breathing muscles. This happens because the brain reckons it’s more important to keep breathing than run faster!

So what can you do? Specific inspiratory muscle training (weight lifting for the diaphragm) will:

  • delay the blood steal reflex;
  • reduce our sense of effort (our heads are a huge barrier to performance);
  • hasten the removal of lactic acid;
  • speed up your recovery.

Breathing in triathlon

If that’s not a good enough reason then consider all the challenges put on your breathing muscles during triathlon.

Swimming – Our breathing muscles have to overcome hydrostatic pressure and need to achieve rapid inhales to maintain buoyancy and propulsion.
Running – we are permanently unstable when we run and breathing muscles have to both pull air in, push it out and keep the pelvis stable.
Cycling – horrible position for breathing! The breathing muscles need all the help they can get to overcome the restrictions imposed by crouching and again stabilising the pelvis to maximise efficient pedalling.

Breathing in recovery

Recovery is not talked about nearly enough in coaching yet the ability to bring ourselves back to baseline calm (think heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, relaxation, digestion, inflammation, immune response) is crucial to our ability to recover from our last race/training session and the success of our next one.

Outside of training/racing is another crucial area where sub-optimal breathing can play havoc. Recovery, otherwise known as all the hours we spend at work and home, awake and asleep is where breathing plays a crucial role.

You lot are by nature pretty busy and pretty driven! This is great for being out there on the run/swim etc but for adequate rest and recovery we need to bring our nervous system back to calm.

Breathing is a powerful regulator of our autonomic nervous system – that balance between emergency response (heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure up, muscles tense) and our rest, digest, repair, immune boosting state. Nearly all the athletes I see have a few things in common…

  1. They over-breathe at rest. This lowers the level of carbon dioxide in the body resulting in poor oxygen delivery, muscle spasms/tension, and airway and blood flow restrictions.
  2. They breathe into the upper chest. This results in fatigue of the accessory muscles (neck/shoulders i.e. muscles we need for effort) and a whipping up of the stress response (see above – not great for recovery).
  3. They are ab suckers. Your diaphragm is your prime muscle for breathing and core strength to name just two of it’s functions. It cannot work effectively against an abdominal corset.
  4. They frequently feel the need for sighs and often mouth breathe – this is hyperventilating, (see point 1).

Have a look at your own breathing

  • Do you nose breathe 100% outside of hard effort?
  • Do you have exercise induced asthma/ chest tightness/wheeze/tightening in the throat?
  • Do you sigh/yawn a lot?
  • Does your chest or belly move as you inhale/exhale at rest?

If you would like to read more about this, check out the series of articles by Robin McNelis for Runners World UK. He talks about running but of course this is relevant for all sport and life in general. It really is worth a read.

Pip Windsor is a physiotherapist and specialises in Breathing Pattern Disorders (BPD) and Asthma Education. She runs Physio2breathe which has offices in Darlington and North Perth and can help athletes improve their breathing for peak performance. In her free time Pip is an ultra trail runner and level 2 recreational running coach. She has dipped her toe in the triathlon pool but decided she prefers running up steep hills. Pip can be contacted via email at physio2breathe@gmail.com

Athlete Profile – Karen A.

How long have you been doing tri?: This is my second season

How did you get into tri?: I lost weight and decided I needed goals to help me go further so my psychologist suggested I enter the womens tri in March 2017 (it was October 2016) so I googled Tri Series and entered the whole of the 16/17 series, as you do!  Then joined the PHTC, went to one session and decided I did not want to be “that” fit but sussed everyone out from afar at each event!  Then I entered the whole series again this year and thought I should be brave and get a little fitter and meet you all so that I keep up the training better.

How many bikes do you have?: Well I started last season on a free road side collection mountain bike (which I still have) but once I enrolled to do the novice course last year, everyone had lovely bikes so I bought a second hand road bike which lives inside my house much to the jealousy of the mountain bike that lives outside.

Something we wouldn’t already know about you?: I was born in Zimbabwe and immigrated here when I was 16. In my real life I am a boring accountant. I have a 19 year old son who is a second year roof carpentry apprentice.

Athlete profile – Nikky

How long have you been in tri?:  Almost 2 years

How did you get into tri?: I started running about 3 years ago and all my running friends had done a few tris so I wanted to do one too. It was going to be a one time thing, get the finisher medal and go back to running. Ooops. I then joined the club to learn some swim technique and now I’m on the committee. I am still not sure how this all happened.

How many bikes do you have?:  3 – a second-hand Trek hybrid I bought to do my first few tris (because I wasn’t going to be serious about this). My Liv Avail roadie and my latest love is my Liv Pique mountain bike (the descent continues).

What do you want to achieve this season?: I was concentrating on my running in late 2018 so I was not doing much swimming or riding. This season I am aiming to be consistent in all of my tri training and improve my swim and bike strength. Maybe do an olympic distance.

Athlete profile – Floora

Name: Floora

How long have you been in tri?:  2.5 years

How did you get into tri?: It’s hard to say…it started with cycling. I then did the cycling leg of a Busso half ironman and got hooked on the atmosphere I think. Before you could say “swim bike run” I was signed up to the Sunsmart triathlon series in early 2016.

How many bikes do you have?:  3 – my Colnago Acr road bike, a Merida 96 3000D mountain bike, and my old faithful Malvern Star Oppy.

Something we wouldn’t already know about you?: English (Aussie) is not my first language, I speak Dutch in my family home. I have lived in Africa and Columbia.

What do you want to achieve this season?: Survive Karri Valley long distance and do the Busso half in under 6 hrs.

Garmins, Gadgets and Geeking out as a Triathlete

Don’t you think that triathletes are pretty fashion conscious bunch? They dress well, and are typically pretty aware of the newest and coolest gadgets out there that will help their chosen sport be more “fun”.

Even those who know me well and love me would collapse in hysterics of laughter if I claimed I was fashion conscious. But… I do LOVE some of the super cool gadgets out there.

Take this offering for example, a US company called Everysight are seeking pre purchase orders for their Raptor glasses. These bad boys display your cadence, power, speed, GPS route and pretty much anything you want within the lens of the glasses. No looking down at your Garmin anymore!

However, could it be that we are too conscious of our gadgets and Garmins? Are we a slave to our power meter? Are we out there to look cool or be Strava KOM? Or should we be focussing on training our bodies and minds for the next race?

You know your own training and racing goals better than I do.

What I have learned is that human performance is a matching of our body’s physical capacity with our mind’s ability to drive the body – often despite great physical discomfort and the desire to stop.

Personally, I use my Garmin for recording data that I can use later, but prefer the Garmin between my ears for sustainable training. If you are thinking that “there is no one right way to train” then I think your are correct.

We all have training sessions, based on a written training programme somebody (or ourself) provided, right?

When the session says easy, that means at a pace where easy conversation is possible (assuming you arent swimming of course!) and you perhaps feel almost embarrassed at how slow you are going (our head can say “this isnt training…….”). A Garmin easy paced run at 5am in the morning is likely not easy in reality when it is 35 celsius out there. But Garmin can’t distinguish the difference.

Moderate effort means – well a significant step up from that but sustainable for quite a long time.

Hard means REALLY hard and you have a significant desire to stop because things are hurting quite a bit.

A lot of reasssurance is to be gained from knowing that even in the event of your Garmin not being charged the night before a race and going flat halfway through (I am looking at you, Jordan) or the power meter deciding it hates performing in the rain (Travis) your internal Garmin is familiar at judging power, judging effort, judging speed because you have practiced using this internal Garmin every day.

It also gives a signifiant sense of confidence that you have found your own personal zone where your mind will control your body – at your current fitness, strength and skill level.

Athlete Profile – Matt S

Nickname: Snelly
How long have you been doing tri?: 3 years
How did you get into tri?: I was inspired by a mate who did his knee playing footy and transitioned into Triathlon and then qualified for Kona on his first attempt.
How many bikes do you have?: Five. Giant TCR Roady, Giant MTB, Scott MTB and Merida Warp 5000 TT. Ohhhhh and I have an original Chrome Redline BMX that was mine as kid.
Something we don’t know about you?: One day I plan to build an ‘actual’ lightsaber. I’ve read several books that outline ‘how to’ but am yet to come across a transponder unit or developed the technology to travel to the planet Illym where the crystals can be found.
What do you want to achieve this season?: Have some fun in the shorter races whilst working toward a 4 hour 30 something at Busso in May.

Santa is a Triathlete

I really think Santa Claus is a triathlete. He shows all the signs, to my way of thinking:

  • He is a bit obsessive compulsive – he’s making a list, he’s checking it twice
  • He gives instructions to the kids at the Aid Station about his intended nutrition plan – look at those regular small intakes of biscuits and milk when he is running around on Christmas Eve
  • He favours a two piece race suits because the one piece shows off his belly too much

But in all seriousness, triathletes can perhaps learn something from his race preparation.

Santa is well prepared.
He knows his A race and focusses on getting everything prepared well in advance. No nasty surprises when it comes time for action!

Santa is part of a club
He involves other people in his race prep (the elves) but ultimately he knows he is completely responsible for the result.

Santa keeps it simple
He knows we live in an “information overload” world, but he only listens to reliable sources of information, so that he can either class each kid as “naughty” or “nice”. There is beauty in simplicity, and so if it is good enough for the big fella, then perhaps we triathletes can simplify our outcomes to focus on only 2, or at the most 3 goals (Santa Claus says 2 goals, Warren Buffet says 3 goals but both are very successful gentlemen).

Come race day we are then able to have a clear mind for what we DO want (those 2 or 3 very clear goals) and drop everything that has a DONT want attached to it. Those goals work nicely if we have numbers (time, pace, power) associated with them.

With thorough preparation, clear and specific goals brings a freedom from anxiety and clutter in our minds, so that we can allow ourselves to perform to the best of our ability (and in so doing, most likely enjoy our race day).

Merry Christmas, and thanks to Santa for the mentorship in being a triathlete.

Contributed by Ian Hainsworth – club secretary, Ironman veteran and all-round nice guy.

The Brutal Honesty of Ironman

Triathlon is one of those endurance sports that seems to attract those that either love the concept of inflicting pain on themselves, or striving to be the best they can possibly be.  Often both of those things at once.

Whether your love is red-lining in sprint distance, or the geriatric shuffle of an Ironman distance tri – the attraction is that only YOU know whether you have truly given it 100%.

For me – IM is my preferred poison/addiction over the last five years. After having not raced at all for two years, I was as nervous as any first time athlete as the big day got closer.  My confidence was low and I had no recent race results to comfort myself that I was well prepared.

You know, it is funny how no matter how meticulously we humans prepare, we tend to migrate towards the negatives. Those missed training sessions, the sessions where we really just “got through it” rather than focussed on achieving the purpose of the session.   It takes quite a bit of mental mastery to go back through the training diary and remind ourselves of all the sessions we consistently did,  those weeks of ticking off each session and each hour spent preparing.

Strength sessions, tolerance intervals, long slow runs, endurance rides, brick sessions – we seem to forget just how well we did prepare as we only seem to see the sleek, lean and well muscled OTHER athletes that sit drinking coffee in the streets of an IM city at race time.  WE imagine their training has been perfect (it hasn’t) and they are better prepared (they aren’t).

In any case, the idea of Ironman is to test yourself.  Just like that exam at school that is absolutely crucial that you pass well, it demands you prepare well in advance and don’t skip classes and do all the required work.  If you don’t prepare well, you may well finish but it will be a world of pain (ok, it is going to be painful anyway, regardless!).

Ironman doesn’t respect any of your other achievements in life.

You can say anything to your friends over coffee about what sort of time you will post on race-day,  but the honesty of Ironman is that you will very, very  likely get the result you deserve. Like that pebble in your shoe, any mistakes or poor preparation will be magnified on raceday.

Ian Hainsworth is the PHTC secretary and an Ironman veteran. When he isn’t planning his next IM strategy he is mending the pets of Mundaring with the same dedication he brings to his race preparation.