Source of Power: Rotation [2c] – Role of Breathing

To deliver the speed and power required in sprint competitions today, athletes need to train to couple the elastic properties of their aerobic and fascial systems, as opposed to training in a manner that causes them to become rigid, inflexible, brittle, and unresponsive.  In sprint events, where athletes must successfully compete in prelims in order to advance, an ultra responsive system is required so that the athlete delivers the exact effort required to advance without overextending themselves, reserving their potential and an inventory of tactics for finals.  For athletes competing in multiple events, this is critical as the flexibility to micro adjust technique to each event is a must if they are to endure an entire meet, and succeed in each event.

Click here to listen and watch 12 time Gold medalist (Olympic and Worlds) Michael Johnson review the sprinting technique of Usain Bolt, Justin Gatlin, James Dasaolu, and Trayvon Bromell. Not once does Johnson suggest that any of these top athletes need to train harder, or that the intensity of their training is lacking.  Instead every recommendation made by Johnson for Bolt – the reigning 100m, 200m and 4x100m WR holder, and gold medal hat-trick winner at Beijing in 2008, London in 2012 and at 2015 Worlds – is in regards to improving technique.


“Michael Phelps wins 8th gold medal” by Bryan Allison – originally posted to Flickr as Michael Phelps wins 8th gold medal. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons

Consider Michael Phelps during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.  He competed not in one, but in a total of eight events, which all required preliminary heats for advancement to finals.  Not only did he win gold medals in each of the eight events, he also set World Records (WR).  Think about that for a moment…  how many athletes go to the Olympics with the entire goal of winning maybe, just maybe a medal, let alone a gold medal, let alone setting a WR?  Years upon years of training focusing on just one event.  How many athletes – who Phelps swam against – were at the Olympics focusing solely on one event?  Phelps didn’t prepare for one event, he prepared for eight.   Phelps had to condition his body to compete and to recover almost instantaneously so that the next event received equal effort.  In effect, Phelps didn’t race any event fully rested, fully tapered.  As a result, he is likely the best example of the importance of aerobic base to athletes competing in sprint and short distance events: top speed is important, but so is the ability to recover so that top speed is available again, and again, and again.  This ability does not come from anaerobic training, it isn’t tolerance which leads to consecutive peak performances, this ‘recover-ability’ arises from a massive base of aerobic training.


Attribution: Tatiana from Moscow, Russia

‘Recover-ability’ in a different sense was displayed by Novak Djokovic during the 2014 Wimbledon Championships and the 2015 U.S. Tennis Open.  At Wimbledon, Djokovic appeared to sustain a game ending shoulder injury but recovered to win the match reclaiming the world number one ranking.  This year while playing Roger Federer at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Djokovic slipped while running to return the ball scrapping both his right forearm and right shin.  Again he recovered – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to defeat Federer taking his 10th Grand Slam title in the process.


To sustain the speed and power for the periods required in endurance competitions today, athletes need to train to remain aerobic at higher and higher intensities, as opposed to training to tolerate an anaerobic state for as long as possible.  Sustaining endurance with concoctions of sugar, caffeine, and trace elements in gel, liquid, or shake form, solutions available to everyone doesn’t offer any unique advantage.  Holding higher top speed as a result of equipment improvements has passed the accelerated portion of the tangent curve, and we are clearly at a point of diminishing returns as improvements are made now by shaving grams or milligrams, not kilograms off the weight of bike frames and drag coefficients.  In fact, the dependence by athletes on everything but training in triathlon endurance events is revealed by the sheer lack of progress in reducing the Ironman World Championship course record.  Based purely on improvements in training and competition both the men’s and women’s records should be at least 10 mins faster, that is before any consideration is made for the course in Hawaii being made easier over the past 25 years, plus the technological advances in equipment for swimming and cycling, and those in nutrition and hydration.


So how do you remain aerobic, elastic, dynamic, able to recover at higher and higher speeds without going anaerobic?

Let’s start by what not to do…

Definitely not by holding one’s breathe.  Yet watch age group and masters athletes train and you will see that many in fact do hold their breathe: while swimming, even while cycling and running. How can you possibly be generating aerobic movement if you are not breathing?  You cannot. Training in this manner forces you to push your physiology to anaerobic energy production, effectively limiting your endurance and placing a cap on your peak power, speed, and strength. Let’s not forget the undesirable side effects of such training… increases in blood pressure, spiking heart rate, an inability to obtain energy from fat, increased muscle mass to compensate for rapid onset of fatigue, rigidity throughout the deep core chain limiting rotation, the elimination of proper diaphragmatic breathing, breathing which is panicked when it does occur, and the dependence on the neuro-endocrine system as a fuel source. None of these are desirable aspects of performance for any athlete. Yet many athletes return daily to train in such a manner which effectively opposes their own goals as it builds obstacles and barriers to the movements desired and required in their sport.

The elimination of proper diaphragmatic breathing moves breathing into the apical and costal regions of the lung having a set of secondary negative effects: as breathing is moved into the neck and upper thorax, the muscles of the shoulder complex, upper chest and back muscles become involved in breathing, reducing their ability to move through full range of motion, reducing the peak amount of power which can be generated to execute sport specific technique.  Immediately you should be able to imagine the negative impact on any sport which utilizes the upper extremities (e.g. swimming, running, all throwing events in athletics, Olympic weight lifting, gymnastics, boxing, judo, etc…).   If breathing is not performed by the diaphragm, then achieving the peak potential of the athlete becomes impossible.  If that athlete is already performing at a significant level, then it is likely that they are approaching or have already attained an intermediate peak in their potential, and their final peak if they do not alter their training methodology.

The elimination of proper diaphragmatic breathing locks the diaphragm and changes it from being the primary breathing muscle, into a deep core stabilizing muscle.  When the diaphragm locks, the lower thoracic spine and upper lumbar spine lock eliminating the function of the universal junction for rotation in the spine. All rotation which should occur in the spine, is forced into the shoulders, the hips, and the knees stressing these joints and leading to many of the overuse and repetitive strain injuries sustained by athletes, age group, masters, and elites alike. How many athletes undergo rehab, even surgery to repair these joints then retrain the surrounding muscles, yet faulty breathing patterns are never suspected to be the underlying cause, nor is breathing ever assessed or retrained.  How many athletes have had their careers end due to a shoulder, hip or knee injury, yet again, breathing is never even suspected as playing a role?


So then what do you do to remain aerobic?

To retain full flexibility in the body, to retain rotation, the diaphragm cannot be engaged as a stabilizing muscle, nor be used as a base against which the upper and lower extremities work against to generate power. Breathing must become a standalone operation within the body minimally affected by movement.  As such, breathing must be trained to be disassociated from any other movement in the body.  Retraining of breathing progresses from breathing exercises along to coupling it with flexibility training (i.e. stretching), then to strengthening exercises, ranging from basic body weight gymnastic exercises to advanced yoga poses, parkour/free-running techniques, and finally to sport specific technique.

To start, athletes need to regain conscious control over all aspects of breathing: proper rate, pattern, depth, frequency, plus the ability to adjust all aspects with subtly.  Once breathing is mastered on its own, then basic gymnastic movements can be added to the mix while breathing is maintained to function independently. The athlete needs to be able to breathe in a manner which retains their aerobic state, regardless of how their body is moving.  In time, the conscious control of breathing becomes subconscious allowing the athlete to train with even greater focus on executing technique with excellence.


Why don’t many athletes or coaches train in this manner?  Because…

  • It is humbling to admit that you have to go backwards in order to move forwards (plus, how many would believe that there is more to breathing beyond inhale & exhale?),
  • It isn’t “sexy” training where you are admired for your speed, intensity, or ability to generate power when out on the track, in the gym, the pool or out on the road,
  • It isn’t training advertised or marketed along with sports nutrition, gear, or equipment, so the mindset for many is that unless you are near exhaustion in training then its not training,
  • It is training performed individually, independently as significant concentration is required and the ability to decipher the smallest changes are required to make progress initially,
  • It is rudimentary, perhaps seen as too simple (like sleep… it cannot possibly be a solution because it is free and readily available to all),
  • It requires significant time, focus, and effort in order to see improvement at the outset, and therefore because it is not seen as “low hanging fruit”,
  • The RoT (Return on Training) is assessed as low in the short term, which it is; however, the long term RoT is not even considered despite the fact that it becomes exponential and a log chart is required to plot results.