After three years of applying my husband finally got a spot in this year’s Mount Marathon Race. Since I am a physical therapist, who specializes in optimizing breathing mechanics, he asked me what’s the number one thing he can do to improve his training. I told him to focus on his exhale.
Our primary breathing muscle is the diaphragm, which lives in our trunk (or rib cage). When it’s relaxed it domes upward (like an umbrella) when it contracts it flattens downward (like a dinner plate). A relaxed lengthened diaphragm domes, gently pushes up, presses into the lungs, and moves air out. A contracted shortened diaphragm flattens, draws down, increases lung space, and allows air to flow in.
We need air to live, move, and reach our peak potential. But here is the trick: We can’t get more air in if we don’t get it all out first. Period. In order for the diaphragm to fully dome and move all the air out we need other muscles to help it achieve and maintain it’s shape. That’s where our abdominals come in.
Our internal obliques and transverse abdominis maintain optimal trunk position by pulling the front of the rib cage down toward the pelvis to allow the diaphragm to relax and dome up to push air out. Abdominals turn on to allow the diaphragm to turn off. Only then can we get enough air in without compromising performance (or causing pain).
Yes, the job of our abdominals is to help us rotate, bend, get out of a chair, do crunches, rock climb, do yoga and bike, oh my! But really their job is to help us do all those things while helping us breath at the same time. Breathing when we move and when we maintain a position (such as sitting or a yoga posture). Sitting is like skiing without moving down hill. Without the rib cage moving down in the front the diaphragm can’t dome/relax/lengthen (air out position) and it stays flat/contracted/shortened (air in position). Then we have to use neck and back muscles to force more air in on top of what we already didn't get out. We need our bodies to work smarter not harder.
Yes, an Olympic cross-country skier needs their abdominal diaphragm relaxers as much as a recreational athlete and as much as a new mother (or mother-to-be) and a retiree and a newspaper reader/porch sitter /TV watcher/knitter. That’s you, me, and my husband.
This Fourth of July picture my husband, working his way up Mount Marathon, and remember: When in doubt… breath out.
References and Links:
Mount Marathon Race: http://mmr.seward.com
Saladin, K.S (2010) Anatomy and Physiology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
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