Descended from Chest Breathers
Sometimes you teach the intern, sometimes the intern teaches you.
Our student intern this past summer at work had a passion for running. Despite her athleticism, she had suffered debilitating back pain through much of her teens and 20s. Then she moved to Kansas for graduate school and visited a sports medicine practitioner in Topeka. It was in that office she made a life-changing and surprising discovery–she’d been breathing wrong.
How is that possible, you ask? After all, breathing is easy. It’s a metaphor for everything that is effortless and unconscious. Breathing is as easy as, well, breathing. Except that a lot of us–women especially–are doing it all wrong.
Apparently we women tend to be chest breathers. For us, taking a deep breath involves raising the rib cage and shoulders while pulling in the abdomen. This is grossly inefficient, causing shallow breaths with inadequate oxygen intake. As our intern discovered, chest breathing also puts inordinate stress on the skeletal structure and can cause back pain as well as a whole host of other problems.
Why do women breathe this way? Consider this historic photo of wasp-waisted royalty. For many, many generations we strangled our diaphragms with corsets, making it patently impossible to breathe properly. When fashion finally moved beyond foundation undergarments, we continued to torture ourselves by sucking in our stomachs to look thinner. It’s a wonder there are any successful female athletes.
It’s been several months since I learned about proper breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing. That doesn’t mean I’ve mastered it, only that I’ve been practicing. It involves lying on the floor and taking deep breaths that lower your diaphragm (and expand your abdomen) while keeping your shoulders and chest very still. See Livestrong’s website for a useful how-to page. It looks so easy, and it is, when you’re at rest. It’s another matter entirely when you’re riding cyclocross, but I’ll keep working at bucking the metaphor. Some day it’ll be as easy as breathing.