Clinical Kit 105: What do they all do?

And that's why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it.....
In shallow shoals, English soles do it
Goldfish in the privacy of bowls do it....
The chimpanzees in the zoo do it
Some courageous kangaroos do it”

                                                            Selected lyrics from “Lets Do It” by Cole Porter

So exactly what are they all doing?
Well the obvious answer is - breathing -
Jokes aside, the importance of breathing crosses all domains in life (by definition no breath no life). As a developing swimmer of the 2.5 -3.0 km range, I marveled at the effect prolonged and regular breathing has on my own state of mental hyperdrive. After a day of clients, emails, creative writing and number crunching, I enter the water mentally frazzled. After 45-60 minutes of stroke and breathing I emerge from the water, physically tired but internally energized.

What is happening? Is it the exercise and associated endorphin release or is it tied in with the breathing pattern?
First up some information about the importance of breathing and swimming.
“Many swimmers hold their breath as a natural reaction from having their face in the water. Others were told to deliberately hold onto their breath when they learnt to swim - and then exhale it at the last moment as they rotate to breathe.
Holding your breath underwater might work OK for sprinters racing over 50 or 100m but for those swimming over longer distances it's a very bad idea because:

  • It increases the buoyancy in your chest which lifts you up at the front and sinks your legs
  • It causes CO2 to build up in your system which makes you feel out of breath and anxious
  • Breathing out late inevitably reduces the time you have available to inhale

Breath holding is incredibly common in swimming, in fact around 90% of swimmers who attend Swim Smooth clinics need to work on it!”
                                                                                                                                                       Senior Coach Swim Smooth Paul Newsome

This is from a guy that teaches swimming day in and out, swum the English Channel 2011 (34km) in absolutely crap conditions and won the 2013 Manhattan Island (46km) swim.

As a practitioner, treating clients in pain, I use the techniques of diaphragmatic breathing, box breathing, progressive muscular relaxation and breathing with visualisations, for many of my clients to help them understand what it feels like to experience relaxation. This is often the exact opposite to what they are experiencing when in pain. Seems basic! Absolutely to those that practice and teach relaxation, but for our clients, it can be a revelation to feel the melting of muscle tension or sensing temporary calm in their minds. Gender wise I find ladies understand the importance, but blokes, not so easy.

So to assist this awareness I call upon the blokey gods; US Navy Seals and elite football players. I ask my male client who is their AFL favorite team and then to visualize they are playing in that team on AFL grand final day, 85000 screaming fans and a cliffhanger result. They are in the forward pocket, their team is down by 4 points when a long bomb comes in .... and they mark it.

Final siren sounds and there ensues absolute silence in the stadium. You could hear someone unwrapping a Mrs. Macs, if anyone dared. I then talk about the flight and fight response and how it is triggered by uncomfortable situations, perceived threats or stress, and the effect on the body by the sudden uncontrolled release of adrenaline. Blood pressure up, heart rate up, gross & fine motor control down. Not so good for kicking the most important goal of the year.  I ask them, 'in this situation would you aspire for being calm or agitated?' then, 'what technique do you think athletes practice to become calm and focused?'

I am sure it is not only elite athletes, but the full spectrum of performers that use breathing techniques to enhance their physical and mental abilities. It goes much broader. The Navy Seals use it in preparation for combat; check out box breathing and other breathing techniques here and spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama uses it as part of their meditation.

So back to the benefits question; Is it the exercise or the breathing?

While having a think, here is my favorite lap lagoon in Esperance where you don't suffer too much black line fatigue.

I used to run a lot and loved the associated fluid motion, but while being very fit, I don’t recall having the same mind clearing benefits I associate with swimming. I remember reading that relaxation is better achieved from a rapid inhalation followed by a slow controlled exhalation (love to find where I read it!) and that is exactly how you breath when swimming. Your head is momentarily to the side and Popeye style you draw in, before rolling your head to the middle already exhaling. You continue a constant stream of exhaling for approximately 2-3 seconds before repeating the in breath on the opposite side, so a ratio of 1:4-6. Running is more of an even inhalation and exhalation breathing ratio.

So my guess is that while exercise undoubtedly has a multitude of benefits for our body, something additional is happening in association with the breathing pattern of swimming, bringing about a powerful relaxation response.

What are your thoughts and how do you use breathing for yourself and clients?

- Doug