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  • Jani Brajkovic

Correct breathing in sports.

When we talk about human survival, remember the rule of "three". The rule of three reads; one can survive three weeks without food (we know cases where an overweight person lived for more than a year), three days without water and three minutes without air.

Breathing is a vital function in which we change the chemical energy of food into energy (ATP) necessary for vital functions, awareness and movement. How fast and deep we breathe, in other words, ventilation, is regulated by the partial pressure (PCO2) of carbon dioxide and blood pH. So CO2 is not "just" a waste gas that we need to get rid of as soon as possible, but it is a gas that regulates breathing. CO2 also regulates the transfer of oxygen from hemoglobin to tissues.

The so-called Bohr effect is an adaptation for the release of oxygen in tissues with low oxygen concentration in the capillaries, where carbon dioxide lowers the pH of the blood. When the pH of the blood decreases, the ability to combine hemoglobin also decreases, i.e. remains bound to oxygen. Hemoglobin binds with oxygen in the high-oxygen space, that is, the lungs, and releases it to the low-oxygen space, in the tissues.

The main function of hemoglobin is to transport oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. The Bohr effect plays an important role in this, which releases oxygen into the tissues when the concentration of hydrogen ions increases. At low pH, the Bohr effect allows the blood to release oxygen for use by the muscles. And this means that it is important for the functioning of the body.

When I was still competing, we were taught to breathe well (hyperventilate) before the time trial. It was believed that in this way we would saturate the blood with oxygen and as a result the muscles would work with greater strength. The Bohr effect shows us that it is the other way around. We have exhaled most of the CO2 from the body, changed the pH of the blood to a more basic one, as a result, the affinity of oxygen for hemoglobin is greater. The transfer of oxygen to the tissues is lower.

The biggest breathing mistake that athletes make (I was one too) during activity is over-ventilating, relative to the intensity. The relationship between "demand/delivery" is broken. If we have more oxygen than we need, we lower the CO2 content in the blood, which, precisely because of the Bohr effect, prevents the working muscles from being supplied with the necessary oxygen. This is how we arrive at a phenomenon where we have a lot of oxygen at our disposal, but only a part of it passes into the tissues. Thus, we do not have enough oxygen for aerobic energy production, energy production (ATP) takes place aerobically (Krebs cycle) and anaerobically (glycolysis). This way of producing ATP is less efficient, the athlete does not achieve the results he could otherwise. The fundamental problem of excessive ventilation is mouth breathing, even at low loads.

Through testing, I found that it is possible to breathe through the nose up to loads where the body is still in homeostasis (Anaerobic Threshold). In sports, it is considered that nasal breathing is an indicator that the athlete is still below the aerobic threshold (very simplified, lactate in the blood does not exceed 2mmol).

If we want to breathe through our nose and also breathe properly, breathing with the abdominal diaphragm is essential. When we inhale, the diaphragm descends into the abdominal cavity, increasing the volume of the chest cavity, which creates a negative pressure in the lungs (this is necessary for inhalation). When breathing with the diaphragm, we’ll expand the chest in all directions, forward-backward, left-right. Thus, the lungs are filled with air from the bottom up, the lower third of the lungs is also filled with air (there are the most alveoli and blood-gravity), which does not happen if the diaphragm is not used (effectively) for breathing. When breathing through the mouth, the inhalation volume is smaller and the breathing frequency is higher. The problem arises because the air speed is higher and the air is not in the lungs long enough for effective gas exchange to occur. At the same time, this type of breathing also reduces the amount of CO2 in the blood.

When breathing through the nose, the air speed itself is lower, so gas exchange (CO2, O2) in the lungs is more efficient. As a result, also due to the higher CO2 in the blood, gas exchange from the blood to the tissues is more efficient, energy is produced more aerobically.

Why does such breathing occur?

The modern lifestyle, where we are hypervigilant most of the day (we pay attention to the outside, but not within ourselves), loads that people can hardly bear, are two of the reasons why distorted breathing occurs. This condition raises the average muscle tone of the the trunk and the pressure in the abdominal cavity, which is necessary to be able to bear the loads. This makes it difficult for the normal function of the diaphragm, the movement of the diaphragm towards the pelvis during inhalation is difficult because it moves into a space where the pressure is already high. We have to invest more energy to move the diaphragm to the south, and we compensate by breathing through the mouth, which is easier than breathing through the nose.

The main reason I started cycling was the numbness and the ability to not feel, which is exactly what long training gave me. Top athletes (as well as amateurs) are also highly traumatized. The trauma usually happens in childhood. When you have a lot of injustices and humiliations locked in your body, you turn your body into a scapegoat for everything bad that happened to us in life. You don't want to have an authentic relationship with the body, you ignore it, chase it, torture it, destroy it. But in doing so, you are destroying yourself, because the body is YOU. Instead of returning all negative energies to those who unjustly gave them to us, we punish ourselves. In such a state, it is difficult to improve breathing, because by better breathing we achieve something that we do not actually want. You would relax more, feel ourselves better, feel the real situation within ourselves and the environment. We don't want that, because not feeling the real situation and the illusion allowed us to survive. When you come home after six hours of training, exhausted, without vital energy, you don't feel anything, you are numb, drugged. Because sports addiction and drug addiction are not very different, both addictions end in destruction, except that sports addiction is socially acceptable.

As the athlete begins to breathe more properly, his condition usually worsens. Namely, more efficient breathing puts us in a more parasympathetic state, we start to relax. That's how the emotions, that are kept suppressed by chronic muscle tension, begin to come to the fore. I still have pain in my feet, hands, hips..."but I've never had any pain", I would say. More efficient breathing also consequently increases the production of vital energy, which enables us to regulate imbalances in ourselves and the environment. I can say from experience that a change in behavior in the environment triggers rebellion and resistance. In people where the resistance was strong, the relationship was limited or broken.

When working with clients, I focus primarily on increasing aerobic capacity. Breathing during such training is exclusively through the nose, which is "strange" for them for the first few weeks. They are not used to nasal breathing, but after two to three weeks they’re starting to see progress. Some can already breathe through their nose at loads close to the anaerobic (glycolytic) threshold. I also teach them AEQ® exercises and AEQ® breathing exercises. For now, we are working primarily on relaxation and I’m very cautious about how deep our conversations end up going. I am aware of the fact they don't want to lose their primary source of unlimited energy, hatred. I use the experience of being in their position myself and working with my AEQ® teacher. When it comes to breathing protocols, I see big differences between clients, for example one (who is in quite good shape - Vo2max 70mm/kg/min) cannot breathe in 9-2-9-2 pattern, the other, achieves long breathing pauses without any problem. With AEQ® exercises, some people are completely cramped, asymmetrical, numb and also quickly become restless. They must not relax, or otherwise…

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