Happy Easter everybody! This post is for the people who saw the advent of another Sunday as synonymous with “long workout day” 🙂
Whether it’s the ability to get to the top of the stairs without being hopelessly out of breath, or going from an 11.5 to a 12 on the beep test, many of us have cardiovascular fitness goals as part of our training. As you get started with this type of training, you’ll notice how plastic your body can be – what was exhausting just a few days or weeks ago can often be done with ease. You can access these quick improvements by manipulating a few commonly understood variables in your training: frequency (do it more often), intensity (do it faster), duration (do it for longer) and rest (take shorter rests if you’re doing interval training).
While the majority of people will reach the results they want by progressively overloading themselves on any of those principles, there will always be some outliers – that’s when it gets interesting. I frequently see National and International level athletes who have been training for years at high intensity reach frustrating plateaus despite increasing their training load and intensity.
Often creating the opportunity for progress comes down to two things – movement efficiency and breathing patterns.
The movement efficiency side of things is pretty straight forward but is often overlooked. All you need to do is accidentally drive down the street with your parking break on to experience what it’s like to try and go faster with poor movement patterns. Effectively having the “breaks on” and fighting against your own body when you’re trying to run, bike, swim, or do anything else will require a ton more effort and increase your metabolic demand for a given task. The simplest example is something like tight hips – if you can’t effortlessly achieve hip flexion and extension through your full ranges that you’re using in your sport of choice, then you’re going to be using up extra energy to battle for those end ranges. This can also lead to recurring soreness because your muscles aren’t only working against the ground, but also against yourself.
But the movement efficiency component isn’t the super juicy stuff – any quality coach will help you clean this up pretty quickly if you haven’t already done that.
The really fun transformation comes when we start to focus on breath.
Ancient movement traditions like yoga and martial arts have known about this from the start – but we’re just waking up from our profound Western sleep of arrogance to realize they had some stuff pretty figured out. Turns out we didn’t really need the Shake Weight and calf raise machine to improve our fitness…
Breathing patterns are a whole world unto themselves, with some amazing resources out there, but I’ll just scratch the surface here. The fundamental thing to grasp for endurance training is that we want our muscles receiving the most amount of oxygen possible to be able to produce the most work. Decrease this oxygen supply and we feel fatigue, simple as that. Along with this, we also want to be using the fewest number muscles at the lowest intensity possible to accomplish a certain task – the less work muscles are doing, the lower our demand for oxygen (back to the movement efficiency argument).
So how do we do this? Effectively, a killer strong diaphragmatic breathing pattern (through your stomach) and calm state of mind.
I can also tell you how we fail at it – by shifting to a chest-dominant breath whenever we get stressed. As soon as we begin a chest dominant or “apical” breathing pattern, we start using a ton of accessory breathing muscles in our chest and neck instead of just the steady rhythm of our diaphragm that is involved with relaxed breathing. Chest breathing helps us get more oxygen at the highest levels of exertion, but if we switch to it too quickly we fatigue faster.
What makes us breath through the chest? A poorly conditioning diaphragm, perceived stress, or both.
So as with any skill, breathing needs to be trained in a variety of scenarios – at rest, under load, under stress, under fatigue, at speed, and with complex tasks distracting you. As you gain competency in maintaining a relaxed style of diaphragmatic breathing under greater physiological demand, you’ll find your body able to accomplish a lot more at your current level of cardiovascular fitness.
Start by checking in with your breath in the morning, while driving, and definitely when you start your workouts – if you’re stuck in a chest dominant, stressed style of breath, fatigue will be tapping on your shoulder sooner than you’d like.