Plan Breathe: How Your Breathing Style Affects Performance on the Mountain

Inhale . . . exhale. The transport of oxygen from our environment into our bodies is what keeps every one of us alive for every moment of our entire lives—breathing is everything. Funny then that so many of us are doing it incorrectly.

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Breathe deep, ride hard. MARK GRIBBON PHOTO.

By Dr. Carla Cupido, Hon.B.Kin, D.C.

Most people view breathing as an instinctual act—we don’t think much about it, we just do it. But our breathing patterns are as intimately tied to our nervous systems as our heat-moulded ski boots are to our feet. So, for mountain athletes and adventurers, breathing is huge, not just to survive but also to thrive. And the jumping-in point for any discussion on breathing is the centre of it all—the mind.

With our minds we can guide our breath, which subsequently controls our nervous system, which ultimately governs our entire body. For an athlete, especially one involved in high-risk activities, the ability to calm the mind in order to relax the body can mean the difference between success and injury. Whether standing atop a big, first descent, counting down the minutes to a major race, or eyeing up the largest hit in the black park, your breathing will affect your performance.

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  • Panicked thoughts + superficial chest breathing = tense physical body
  • Calm thoughts + deep diaphragmatic breathing = relaxed physical body

Nerves and the “fight-or-flight” reflex are natural, healthy even, when the going gets gnarly, but running our bodies in overdrive with racing thoughts and fast, unhealthy breathing patterns does not help anyone. Shallow, fast breathing creates a ramped up physiological state that results in increased heart rate, tunnel vision, loss of hearing, relaxation of bladder, and a general effect on the body’s sphincters. Have you ever seen an athlete puke before a big event? This is why.

Shallow, fast breathing creates a ramped up physiological state that results in increased heart rate, tunnel vision, loss of hearing, relaxation of bladder, and a general effect on the body’s sphincters. Have you ever seen an athlete puke before a big event? This is why.

Conversely, deep diaphragmatic breathing, a calm mind and relaxed nervous system will translate to improved performance, sharper focus, increased situational awareness and a sense of the natural “flow” of things. And for skiers, boarders, surfers, bikers, climbers and anyone else out there on the edge, catching “the flow” is always better than the opposite. To enhance performance and safety, start with your mind, follow with your breath and let yourself go with the flow.

How Not to Breathe
Breathing assessments can be very detailed and complex and it’s important to find a good manual practitioner who will be able to help you fine-tune your breathing patterns. However, the following are common dysfunctional tendencies you can assess on your own:

  • Rising and falling shoulders with breathing
  • Noticeable muscular activity around the neck with breathing
  • Short, shallow breaths
  • Inward belly movement with inhalation
  • Breath holding
  • Regular sighing
  • Rapid breathing

Often, subtle restrictions in joint mobility or muscle tissue can kindle the abnormal breathing patterns described above. For example, hard bails can injure a muscle or joint around the ribcage, which can make deep breathing painful as those damaged structures move with each breath. This typically leads people into shallow breathing patterns high up in the chest which often results in long-term, negative breathing changes. Treating these issues can bring you back to better breathing biomechanics.

Breathe for Health
It’s not just extreme adventure types who can benefit from proper breathing. Here are five key points on how proper deep breathing can improve overall health. Breathing controls your pH Acid-base balance, or pH, is a hot topic lately, most often discussed with respect to food and stress; we are all aiming to be more alkaline. The way we breathe can actually influence our body’s pH over the short term, while our kidneys manage the long term. If our body becomes too acidic, we hyperventilate to expel more CO2 and shift our pH back to normal. This pattern of hyperventilation can unfortunately become our normal pattern of breathing.

Breathing Can Induce a Relaxation Response
Deep, calm breathing stimulates our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which helps us “rest and digest.” When we hyperventilate, we stimulate our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which forces us towards what we know as the “fight, flight or freeze response.” An SNS in overdrive will make it hard for you to keep a cool head and will drain you of your super physical powers as well.

The Perkiness of Your Chest Matters
When your ribcage and pelvis are relatively parallel to one another, your diaphragm descends fully in your abdomen during inhalation. This increases the stiffness in your abdominal cavity, similar to how the pressure increases in a bike shock during a big hit. This optimal position essentially improves core strength while maximizing the capacity of your breaths.

Cardio-respiratory Fitness Improves Core Stability
Your diaphragm is your most important breathing muscle, and as mentioned above, it’s also a key core stabilizer. However, it can’t do both jobs perfectly at the same time, so your body will always choose to keep you breathing over keeping your core stable (thankfully)… So, the fitter you are, the less frequently your body will have to make this decision.