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Pacing, Mental Fitness & the Tie That Binds

Our last two blog posts have discussed Pacing and Mental Fitness, respectively.  Pacing is the art of calibrating your effort for maximum average power output, resulting in maximum performance.  “Mental fitness” is a catch-all term we use to describe the mental aspect of athletic performance – how well you are able to steer your mental chatter towards optimum performance.  We could say how ‘fit’  you are mentally.   The two are closely intertwined, of course, and the tie that binds them together is breathing.

…to really use our breath to our athletic advantage, we have to first notice the fact of breathing and then begin taking a degree of control over it.

Very few of us know how to breathe.  Oh, we all breathe, all day long, and do a perfectly workable job of not dying.  That’s a start.  But to really use our breath to our athletic advantage, we have to first notice the fact of breathing and then begin taking a degree of control over it.

Related: Aerobic Capacity – What Is It & Why Is It Important?

This process begins with becoming consciously aware of your breathing.  We have begun this process at CrossFit Slipstream, primarily during weightlifting efforts, focusing on exhaling when working against gravity, and inhaling while working with gravity.  That is, exhale while lifting, inhale while lowering.  Sometimes we hold while lowering, especially on our heaviest efforts to help brace our core.  These are three of the four basic things to do with your breath: in, out, hold full, and hold empty.  A great way to build awareness is to “box breathe” – breathe in, hold, breathe out, and hold empty for the same time each.  Try a 4-count, and shorten if you need to:

The next step is to evaluate the effect these breathing patterns have on our efforts: do you feel stronger? Weaker? No change?  Do you feel less winded after a lifting set?  More?  Paying attention to the effect of different breathing techniques allows us to be as scientific (or at least systematic) as possible in working with our breath.  It’s not enough just to exhale now and inhale then because your coach told you to – you have to take responsibility for paying attention, identifying the effect of the breath, and provide feedback to yourself and your coach on what you experience as a result of breath work.

From weightlifting, in which it is relatively easy to manipulate and evaluate our breathing patterns, we increase the difficulty and begin applying it to our met-cons, runs, and other endurance activities.  In these situations, breathing with the diaphragm, as deeply as possible, and as slowly as possible, becomes our goal.  Keeping your effort aligned with your breath is the best, surest, way to keep your effort from crossing into oxygen debt, which will force you to slow down.

 Related: Intensity: The Key to Improving Your Physical Fitness

Being aligned with your breath means that your movements are timed with your breathing – not the other way around.  For maximum average power output your breathing should be deep, rapid, and just able to keep you out of oxygen debt.  That means that you can continue your effort without needing to stop and rest or slow down significantly.  The exhale is forceful and occurs when you need to move against gravity when lifting or doing bodyweight movements.  The inhale is deep, driven by the diaphragm, and timed to correspond to your movement with gravity.  For running, cycling, and similar activities, breathing is deep, regular, and aligned with your movement cadence.

Begin with this basic discovery of your breath and its abilities to calm your mind, power your movements, and regulate your effort.  More advanced performance measures begin regulating the pace of the breath, affecting your CO2 levels and other variables that affect performance.

-John Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer