You just finished your workout for the day and absolutely crushed it. Your heart rate is up, breathing is heavy, sweat beads streaming down and glistening. Job well done! However, now that your training is finished, comes the more important part—getting your system to move into the recovery phase ASAP.
So how do we go about doing that? A stretching routine? Hit the sauna? Go to a cryotherapy chamber? Get some food? Each of those things can be helpful but what if we had a proverbial “off-switch” that can shift our body and mind from the working out, “revved up” phase to the relaxation, “chilled out” phase that not only boosts recovery itself but also enhances the effectiveness of any other recovery-oriented things you’re planning on doing. Enter: deep breathing techniques.
Based on an expanding field of research, we can use our breathing to harness the body’s own nervous system and shift it into something called the “parasympathetic state”
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Fast track from fight or flight to rest and digest
The nervous system—specifically the autonomic nervous system—is made up of two different branches, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), says Andy Barr, DPT, CSCS, owner of Quantum Performance, who works with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets.
“Life includes cyclical periods of work and stimulation and periods of rest and recovery,” he says. “The SNS is used for arousal, often called the ‘fight or fligh’” system. The PSNS on the other hand is in action when the body is eating, relaxing and generally recovering, especially when sleeping, thus it’s often called the ‘rest & digest system.’”
Following exercise during which the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system is being used like high-intensity interval training, research shows that the parasympathetic nervous system response contributes to the recovery phase immediately following the end of activity. Additional research links slowed, deep breathing—we’ll go through two techniques below—with an increase in parasympathetic activity. Therefore, it follows that we can harness these techniques to shift from our evolutionary, high-energy, activity state to a low-energy, recovery state.
This concept has become increasingly popular amongst groups like elite athletes and special forces to expedite recovery. With the former, the difference between success and failure in an athlete’s career can be the finest of recovery margins. In the latters, the difference between that edge and not can literally be life and death. The same rules apply even when someone is highly stressed, which certainly applies to groups like professional athletes and special forces, but also many others during these uncertain, changing times. The SNS system can become overused and throw off the work-to-rest balance, according to Dr. Barr. “This creates a vicious circle of under recovery as the more out of balance you become the harder it is to tap into the PSNS. Breathing techniques and meditation are a great way to establish vagal nerve stimulation, which is heavily involved in regulating the PSNS, and promote recovery and relaxation.”
Is it measurable?
The most commonly used measure for SNS and PSNS activity is heart rate variability (HRV). Greater HRV indicates a greater balance between the SNS and PSNS, with the latter kicking in to induce recovery, whereas less HRV indicates a tilt toward the stressful SNS state.
Wrist-worn fitness devices and trackers have popularized the use of HRV as a health metric, but they aren’t accurate since they’re trying to detect changes through the skin. Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) devices that record a heart’s electrical activity with electrode leads attached to the chest are much more accurate and widely used in the medical world to measure HRV, but of course, they aren’t as convenient or easily accessible.
At the moment, professional sports teams are leading the charge on developing new technologies to measure HRV according Dr. Barr who sees their implementation first-hand due to his close working relationship with the Brooklyn Nets, “There are quite a few emerging technologies in the recovery space that pro sports teams and athletes use to help track levels of HRV to better monitor and understand readiness levels to perform.” But they are not yet available to the public.
As such, aside from fitness trackers, the best way for the average person to measure their recovery may just be by taking a qualitative approach, meaning gauging how you feel post-workout as opposed to relying heavily on data.
Are there other benefits to deep breathing techniques?
In addition to post-exercise recovery, parasympathetic breathing is linked to beneficial changes in brain waves, specifically an increase in alpha brain waves and decrease in theta brain waves, and functional MRI studies display an increase in brain structures including the cortical region (e.g., prefrontal and motor cortices) and subcortical region (e.g., pons, thalamus, and hypothalamus).
These modifications are associated with increased comfort, relaxation, pleasantness, vigor, and alertness, as well as reduced symptoms of arousal, anxiety, depression, anger, and confusion. That sounds pretty good to me!
Further, breathing sessions using an app have been shown to reduce stress and facilitate stress recovery amongst working professionals. In this study, 75 employees of the company where the study took place were randomly selected into one of three conditions: 1. biofeedback-based smartphone breathing app called BioBase, 2. Mindfulness body scan, or 3. control (no intervention).
Those subjects in the breathing-based intervention showed significantly reduced heart rate variability and subjective measures of reduced stress compared to both the mindfulness body scan and control groups.
In other words, breathing can be used to boost recovery, reduce stress, and induce multiple other positive benefits in situations where the sympathetic nervous system tends to dominate, which is very much the case during exercise.
Let's go through two easy and effective techniques to harness this newfound knowledge and shift you onto the road of better recovery and decreased stress.
2 parasympathetic, deep breathing techniques
Basic: 4-8-8 technique
The first technique is the easier of the two and recommended for those new to this style of breathing. It’s based on research showing that prolonged exhalation (breathing out) compared to inhalation (breathing in) promotes a shift to parasympathetic activity.
To keep it simple, we’ll use a 1:2 inhale to exhale ratio with a hold at the end of each breath.
Start with an inhale for four seconds, exhale for eight seconds, and then hold that exhaled position for another eight seconds, which will help reinforce the parasympathetic position and make you more comfortable without air in your system. Repeat for six iterations for a total of two minutes.
Advanced: Accordion breathing technique
The more 2.0 technique is called “accordion breathing,” which I learned on one of my clinical rotations. There are three key phases of this technique.
The first phase is the accordion phase. Imagine your chest as an accordion with level one being the slightest inhale and level five being a maximum inhale. Levels two to four are equal increases between levels 1 and five—this will be an estimation on your end, and don’t worry about how precise it is. Inhale to level one, fully exhale, inhale to level two, fully exhale, and so on until you get to level five. At that point drop back to level four, fully exhale, and so on until you get back to level 1. Your torso will be like an accordion that’s expanding and retracting!
The second phase immediately follows the first. Take three breaths to level five and fully exhale upon each. On the last exhale, hold that bottom position. This position is phase three.
Hold phase three (and if you’re holding your breath there, it means you didn’t fully exhale!) until you feel a sort of “air hunger” and need to breathe back in. This is the last part of the 4-8-8 technique taken to its limit, again reinforcing parasympathetic drive, while increasing your comfort without air.
Use these quick, easy, and pragmatic techniques to jumpstart your recovery after exercise (and when feeling stressed or simply out of sorts) in order to set yourself up for success.