Just Breathe

August 12, 2018

Last year I attended a wellness seminar where Emma Ferris from The Butterfly Effect was speaking. Emma gave an informative yet humorous talk on the power of the breath. When I was starting to think about the tools that could help Andy progress his swimming, Emma immediately came to mind. I contacted her and she very kindly offered her time to assist Andy to breath more effectively, and reach his goal of open water swimming.

Andy and I met with Emma in her home town of Glenorchy. Emma is a physiotherapist and breathing coach and treats everyone from top athletes to people with anxiety and pain. She first assessed Andy’s current breathing pattern and determined that there was a great deal of improvement to be made. Remembering that Andy had already been a top endurance runner, Emma got very excited thinking how well he could perform when he mastered his breathing.

Among other things, it was suggested that Andy was ‘breath stacking’ when he is swimming. Andy gets into the cool water which results in him taking a deep breath, he then pushes off the wall and turns his head immediately for another breath. According to Emma, too much inhalation puts us in ‘fear breathing’ mode whereby all of the air isn’t being exhaled and so not all of the air can be inhaled. With this type of breathing Andy isn’t able to use his major breathing muscle, the diaphragm, and his other breathing muscles take over. He therefore feels he has to breathe more creating a shortness of breath which can lead to panic. This will likely have been a contributing factor to the fear and panic that Andy experiences in the water.

Emma did several tests with Andy and one was an exhalation breath hold test which was well below normal and showed that Andy’s body had a low tolerance to a build-up in C02 (carbon dioxide) that would also be contributing to his body’s drive to breath faster when swimming and increase the feeling of panic and shortness of breath when training.

Before we meet with Emma again, Andy was prescribed a number of exercises to do over the next few weeks at home and at the pool. While these exercises sound very simple, when your breathing pattern has been altered for a while, our blood chemistry and our internal levels of normal get shifted and it can take weeks and months to reset them. Andy and I both left the appointment feeling really relaxed from the exercises we had been doing and also excited about the potential outcome of being able to breath effectively in life and sport. I decided to try it out also to see what benefits I might gain.

Emma explains that around 75% of us have a breathing dysfunction which is an alteration of a normal breathing pattern. We are born breathing calm and relaxed into our belly and then stresses in life can encourage us to shallow breathe and often we end up breathing into our chests and using our mouth rather than our stomach and nose. This often results in over using our back up breathing muscles that cause increased tightness and pain around our neck, shoulders and back and can create headaches along with a multitude of other symptoms (fatigue, shortness of breath, upset stomach, poor sleep and nausea just to name a few).

Emma also points out that you need to achieve calm relaxed breathing first before you can master high demand breathing exercises such as when practicing sport and that the simple habits of breathing add up.

After the first week of doing the prescribed exercises, both Andy and I noticed some quick improvements. For me I noticed a more relaxed feeling in the pool without experiencing the pressure to breath so often. I also noticed that it was becoming easier to exhale evenly between breaths. Andy has noticed feeling a bit calmer in the water and has experienced an improvement in his bilateral breathing. Another positive has been that he is also feeling calmer in everyday life and his resting heart rate has dropped.

These small but important improvements are exciting to see so quickly and Emma, Andy and I can’t wait to see where the better breathing technique will take us. I will be sure to keep you informed on our breathing progress over the upcoming weeks.

Emma is passionate about what she does and genuinely wants to help people to breath better so that their lives can be enriched. You can learn more about what she does and even take a free 5 day course on how to improve your own breathing at The Big Exhale.