Controversial statement, but stick with me...
“We don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.” - Archilochus
I first came across this quote eight years ago learning Krav Maga. It was something my Instructor continually drilled during training (and one of the reasons sparring was replaced with as-close-to-real training scenarios), so that when the time came, the right technique and appropriate level of force would be instinctively applied, for the maximum benefit i.e. defend ourselves safely.
Breathing is a life or death scenario too. Quite literally. The air we breathe each and every minute helps give us the energy we need to survive. Too much or too little and we place unnecessary strain on, or cause damage to our body. Through homeostasis the body continually seeks out an equilibrium, a balance, and getting the right amount of air in and out of the body is part of that equation.
Each breath we take deeply influences our physiology (and psychology - but more on that in another post), and how we take those breaths determines the type and severity of that influence; from rapidly increasing our blood pressure or causing a release of adrenaline to stimulating digestion or decreasing our heart rate.
It makes sense that if we improve the way we breathe, we’re able to positively influence our physiology.
Only one part of your day
Breathing is also something we largely do unconsciously and depending on our respiration rate (how fast we breathe) and activity level (what we do during the day), we breathe between 20,000 and 40,000 breaths. Every. Single. Day.
That’s a whole lot of unaware breathing!
Let’s assume you do Wim Hof Method breathing daily. That’s 30 minutes of focused, conscious breathing every day (you may do less or more - I’m just trying to keep the maths simple).
How are you breathing for the other 23.5 hours of the day?
If you’re anything like the majority of the population, you over breathe. We overwork our respiratory muscles by taking in too much air and we develop a low tolerance for carbon dioxide by breathing out too much air. It’s a vicious cycle. The lower our carbon dioxide tolerance, the higher our breathing volume becomes and the faster we breathe. This rapid breathing triggers a stress-like response in our body, which over time, if left unchecked, results in the constriction of blood vessels and a reduction in the amount of oxygen being delivered to cells, contributing to many common health issues, including high blood pressure, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, weight gain, and even cardiovascular disease.
This is why only doing the Wim Hof Method is not enough.
If you work on your breathing during your 30 minute Wim Hof Method breathing session, but don’t address how you’re breathing the rest of the day, you’re not just missing out on the full benefit of your session, you’re undoing all your hard work!
It’s like someone sweating it out in a gym for an hour and then spending the remainder of the day on the couch eating junk food. Sure, they’re training their muscles a bit and burning a few calories, but they’re missing out on developing the right habits outside of the gym to benefit them when they need it (and for their life in general).
Remember Archilochus’ quote from the start? Taking some poetic license, think of it as “how you breathe during your day, is how you’ll breathe during your training”.
Break the cycle
Imagine the impact on your well being if you improve each and every one of the 40,000 breaths you take? Imagine how much more impact your Wim Hof Method breathing session will have when you get your breathing foundation right?
How do we do that?
We break the cycle by improving our body’s tolerance to carbon dioxide and we do that by practicing; 1) breathing through the nose and 2) breath holding exercises, to develop good breathing habits.
Here are 3 exercises to get you started:
Nose breathe. Close your mouth, relax your jaw and simply inhale and exhale through the nose. Be aware of the breath as it enters and exits your nose. Feel the rise and fall of your belly with your inhale and exhale. Simply breathe and observe. Do this whenever you catch yourself breathing with your mouth open. Start with 5 minutes and build up.
Extended box breathing. This takes the standard box breathing technique (where your inhale, pause, exhale, pause are the same length) and extends the count. Start with a 5 second count (5-5-5-5 pattern). The aim is to create a mild sensation of air hunger, or an uncomfortable feeling that you're not getting enough air. If you’re not feeling that hunger, increase the pattern to 7-7-7-7 or until you can no longer maintain the tempo. Continue for 5-10 minutes. This is a really simple technique that can also be used as a meditation.
Breath hold & walk. Inhale and exhale gently through your nose, then pinch your nose and hold your breath. Walk as many steps as you can, building up a medium to strong air hunger. Resume nose breathing, and calm yourself as fast as possible. (If you’re not able to recover your breathing within 2 to 3 breaths, you’ve held your breath for too long - hold for less time next round). Wait 1 to 2 minutes, then do another round. Repeat for 5 rounds.
For those who’ve already made the switch from a #mouthbreather to a nose breather or for those feeling more adventurous, practice nasal-only breathing during your workouts or when you go for a run. Your performance may dip in the beginning, but if you adjust your workout tempo to what your breath can handle, you’ll soon start to notice an improvement in your work output.
The Wim Hof Method breathing technique is a powerful tool, capable of deeply influencing our physiology, but it’s also a training technique, a breathing exercise for our body and mind. However, unlike other exercise, we don’t stop breathing when the training session is finished!
By training your breathing throughout the entire day, through consciously influencing it, you’re working to develop and reinforce good breathing habits that can then become instinctive, unconscious, to provide you with the maximum benefit when you need it most.
Interested to learn more about how your breathing influences your body & mind? Come along to a workshop.
Like me to host one at your gym, studio, workplace or backyard? Contact me
Exercise 1 is suitable for all persons of good health, while exercise 2 & 3 are not suitable for those with serious medical conditions and pregnancy/breastfeeding. Those with specific health concerns or any medical issues should consult a healthcare professional.
Nasal-only breathing during a workout is a powerful technique, especially if performing high-intensity exercise, and is only suitable for those with reasonably good health and fitness. Remember to always build up the intensity slowly. Those with any medical issues should perform the workout only with the consent of your medical practitioner.