Using Breathing to Harness the Power of Your Nervous System


Embracing the sympathetic nervous system: Your ally in fitness

When we think of the sympathetic nervous system—often thought of as the “fight or flight” response”—it’s common to view it as something to be calmed or controlled, especially in fitness and performance contexts. 

However, Dr. Inna Khazan, a renowned expert in mindfulness-based biofeedback, urges us to rethink this perspective. Contrary to popular belief, the sympathetic nervous system is not an adversary to performance, but rather an essential ally. 

This system primes our bodies for action, increasing our heart rate, breathing, and muscle readiness. Instead of attempting to suppress these reactions, Dr. Khazan advocates for embracing them. 

Recognizing the signs of physiological activation as beneficial is crucial. It's a shift from perceiving these responses as signs of anxiety to indicators of your body's readiness for action. This mindset not only improves performance but also enhances our confidence and reduces performance-related anxiety.

The Inverted-U: Finding your optimal activation level

Central to understanding your optimal performance zone is the Inverted-U Curve, a concept modeled by Yerkes-Dodson in 1908. This theory illustrates the relationship between arousal levels (what we’ll call “activation”) and performance. There is a sweet spot of activation where our performance peaks—not too low that we're lethargic, and not too high that we're overwhelmed. 

The key to peak performance is identifying and maintaining this optimal level of physiological arousal. This is where individualization comes into play. What constitutes the right level of activation varies greatly among individuals and depends on the nature of the activity. 

For example, the activation needed for a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session differs significantly from what one might require for a yoga session. Finding and honing this personal and activity-specific sweet spot is crucial in optimizing your workout performance.

Physiological activation: Your body's natural performance enhancer

The sensations commonly associated with nervousness—a racing heart, quicker breathing, and a burst of adrenaline—are often perceived negatively. However, Dr. Khazan emphasizes that these are natural and beneficial responses of our body gearing up for peak performance. They are not symptoms of fear or anxiety to be quelled, but rather signs of our body mobilizing its resources for the task at hand. 

By reinterpreting these physiological cues positively, we can transform our performance. This mental shift doesn't just enhance our physical abilities; it changes our entire approach to fitness challenges. It allows us to work with our bodies, not against them, turning what we once saw as hurdles into powerful tools for success.

Now that we have a more complete understanding of activation, let’s dive deeper into how we can proactively put ourselves at our optimal level using a tool all of us have access to at all times no matter where we are: our breath.

The misconception of deep breathing

A common belief is that an emphasis on deep breathing enhances performance. However, Dr. Khazan dispels this misconception. It's not about taking more oxygen—it's about maintaining the right balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. 

Over-breathing results in breathing out too much carbon dioxide and can actually hinder performance by affecting oxygen availability to the brain and muscles.

Understanding the physiology of breathing

To optimize our performance, it's crucial to understand the physiology behind normal breathing and over-breathing. Normal breathing maintains a healthy balance between oxygen intake and carbon dioxide levels, crucial for optimal muscle and brain function. Over-breathing disrupts this balance, leading to symptoms like lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and a “fuzzy mind,” which can significantly impact our performance and overall exercise experience and output.

Low and slow breathing

The key to effective breathing during exercise lies in the “low and slow” approach. This involves shifting the breath to the belly, taking normal-sized inhalations, and exhaling slowly through the nose or pursed lips like you’re blowing out a birthday candle. 

This technique helps in maintaining the crucial balance of gas in our blood and aids in better control over our physiological responses, enhancing both physical performance and mental focus.

Integrating mind-body awareness in fitness

Integrating mindfulness into our fitness regimen is more than a trendy practice—it's a powerful tool for enhancing performance. Mindfulness in the fitness context refers to the non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, particularly our bodily sensations during exercise. This heightened awareness allows us to tune into our body's needs and responses, adjusting our effort and strategies in real-time for optimal performance.

For example, being mindful of our breathing patterns during a workout can help us avoid over-breathing and instead maintain our desired output. Similarly, tuning into muscle fatigue can guide us in managing our energy efficiently throughout the duration of our entire workout. 

Mind-body awareness not only improves performance but also minimizes the risk of injury and enhances the overall exercise experience. Let’s look at one approach we can implement to get our workout in on days we’re not motivated, understanding the difference between “willingness” and “wanting.”

Willingness: The key to engagement

Willingness is not about desire, but rather a commitment to engage with our experiences, including moments that are challenging or uncomfortable. When we choose to participate fully, we are able to embrace the entirety of our workout, including the discomfort that often accompanies physical exertion.

Wanting: The trap of desire

On the other hand, wanting is tied to our desires and feelings. It can often lead to resistance, especially when we face challenges that don't align with what we feel like doing in the moment. Relying solely on the motivation to want to work out can make our fitness journey more difficult, as it is swayed by fluctuating emotions and desires.

The power of willingness

When we prioritize willingness over wanting, we empower ourselves to stick with our fitness commitment and push through challenges, even when we don't “feel” like it. Approaching our workouts with this mindset fosters resilience, consistency, and ultimately, greater satisfaction and achievement. 

Incorporating the principle of “willingness” into our fitness routines encourages a more holistic and effective approach to wellness, aligning our actions today with our long-term goals rather than being led off course by fleeting desires.

Take this guidance on breathing and choosing a willing response and apply them in improving your approach to your fitness journey. When put into action in your life, these principles not only contribute to better physical outcomes but also promote overall well-being and mental health.