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OpEd: Why Breathwork Is the Perfect Mental Health Tool for CrossFitters

August 24, 2021 by
Photo Credit: Jill Wellington (instagram.com/jillwellingtonphotography_)
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From headlines surrounding global sports stars like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka to CrossFit Games athlete Brent Fikowski discussing his mindfulness training, mental health is trending these days, and it’s for good reason.

The way we think and feel—a simple way to define mental health—is equally as important to diet and exercise in achieving optimal health and even performance.

Still, tending to one’s mental health can feel like an immeasurable effort. And CrossFitters who thrive on progress are often less motivated to add practices that may not provide immediate results, such as meditation or mobility, to our already busy routines.

What if there was a trackable tool that not only improved mental health and performance, but also provided benefits we could immediately feel? Enter: breathwork.

What is breathwork?

Breathwork can improve physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual health through breathing exercises. While there are many different kinds of breathwork, the kind I’ll speak to here can be described as functional breathwork. In the same way that functional fitness prepares the body for everyday life movements, functional breathwork manipulates breath rate and depth to better equip you for everyday life situations, from falling asleep to managing stress to preparing for a presentation.

At first, the act of breathing might sound too innate to merit specialized exercises. However, consider the same view regarding nutrition. Eating food is also a basic, necessary action for sustaining life and performing well, and yet we work hard at optimizing our personalized diets to meet our goals.

Breathing is arguably just as impactful as nutrition but receives far less attention. The average person takes 14,400 to 20,000 breaths a day, yet many people have developed dysfunctional breathing patterns like overbreathing or shallow upper-chest breathing. Imagine the dysfunction that would be created by doing 20,000 squats a day with improper form or eating 20,000 meals with poor nutritional value.

Breathing well is a basic skill every human should possess, and its benefits only increase for athletes consistently testing their boundaries. Let’s take a closer look at how we, as CrossFitters, can use breathwork to give ourselves a performance edge and support our mental health.

Breathwork is an active mindfulness tool that’s measurable.

There’s strong research supporting mindfulness’ positive impact on certain areas of mental health like stress reduction, emotions, depression, and anxiety, and mindfulness has been a practice used by elite athletes for decades. 

One reason athletes use mindfulness is it helps them focus solely on the present moment or task, improving their concentration and ability to enter a state of “flow.” Steven Kotler, founder of the Flow Research Collective, describes flow as “a state when you’re in a singular focus, you’re not thinking but performing at the best possible level.”

We can use breathing as a built-in, active point of focus to practice mindfulness. Some of these same techniques can also improve our tolerance to carbon dioxide, which in turn increases endurance by boosting the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. Improvement in carbon dioxide tolerance can easily be measured, providing extra motivation to practice mindfulness through breathwork.

Breathwork prepares the body and mind pre-workout.

Practicing mindfulness also helps cultivate a nonjudgmental awareness of our thoughts and emotions so that we’re not as easily influenced or overwhelmed by them. Even a short breathwork practice before a workout or competition can help reduce anxiety and negative self-talk while heightening concentration and composure.

The same breathwork practice can simultaneously prepare the body physically through warming up the respiratory muscles, balancing oxygen and carbon dioxide, and reinforcing proper diaphragm activation.

Breathwork improves performance during a workout or competition.

Practicing optimal breathing patterns helps us properly engage core muscles and stabilize the spine, leading to better movement efficiency and lower risk of injury. This means that, for example, an athlete skilled in breathing is likely to lift more and move faster than one with dysfunctional breathing patterns.

Breathwork can also be incorporated into training as another variable that can be manipulated, just like load and volume. For example, nasal breathing during endurance training has been shown to increase breathing efficiency by enabling the body to utilize more oxygen from each breath.

Breathwork enhances recovery.

Like a remote control to the body and brain, breathwork can help us better manage the body’s stress response from both exercise and life.

Intense CrossFit workouts, as well as many negative emotions like anxiety, stimulate the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system. Certain breathing techniques like diaphragm activation and elongated exhales can help us quickly switch to the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system. 

The faster we make this switch post-workout, the faster we start the recovery process. Similarly, the more time we spend in a parasympathetic state throughout the day, the better we can continue supporting recovery processes like digestion and sleep and, typically, the calmer and happier we feel.

From emotional states to brain function to spinal stabilization to oxygen utilization, the way we breathe affects our ability to thrive mentally and physically. Breathwork is an incredibly simple, accessible tool to optimize our breathing and, therefore, optimize our lives.

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