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Breathing and Mental Performance - Charlie Unwin - Performance Psychology - Episode 12

Watch Episode 12 here


If you would prefer to read a text version of Charlie's latest vlog - check out the video transcript below

Amy Williams:

Hello, and welcome to the U Perform channel and we're back with Charlie, our mental performance expert. And today we're talking about breathing and the role that that has in training and stress. I know this leads on from last week's episode, but explain more to everyone.

Charlie Unwin:

Well, I think breathing we're going to use as our start point as our foundation skill for being able to control and manage, not just our physiology, but also our psychology as well.

We think about breathing, right. And everyone's there thinking, yeah, I can breathe. I've been breathing all my life, but breathing becomes really, really important in all aspects of life, really. And it's something which increasingly we're getting worse at doing, believe it or not.

Take, for example, I don't know if you relate to this. People doing their emails. If you're doing your emails, you are likely to be holding your breath whilst you're opening emails. Why? Because you're anticipating how you might feel when you read that email. So we're reacting a lot if we are scrolling through social media. We tend to hold our breath whilst we're doing it. Notice it next time you do that.

Yeah. Well, you might be surprised. And in fact, scientists think that we're perhaps using about a fifth of our lung capacity in modern life, which I think is quite scary. Now translate that into sports where our muscles need all the oxygen that they can get. But actually there's more to it than. Because breathing creates the very rhythms, the biological rhythms in which everything else inside us depends. And we're going to be exploring that a little bit more.

So we're going to get you doing it as well. We've got a nice little bit of software, which we'll get you working on in a second. I suppose, the other thing I wanted to link breathing with is something called coherence. So I'm going to be using the word coherence quite a lot. And breathing has a powerful effect, not just on our physiology, but also our heart rhythms and the way that our brain works.

So when we are breathing correctly, we find ourselves in quite coherent states. Now, coherent states, I suppose, are sort of calm with states, we're thinking clearly. And this becomes important when we're in a state of kind of physical duress. Like we are in sports. You see it's all very well being able to kind of meditate and breathe by the side of a nice mountain lake. And when the environment is placid and beautiful, but actually we can't rely on that as athletes. We need to be able to adopt these techniques and find coherence when we are on that start line, when we are physically exhausted, we have to be able to maintain that clarity of mind and breathing will always be our first port of call to achieving that.

Amy Williams:

Makes sense really? Doesn't it. You can roll out your yoga mat and it's only actually, I remember, from doing a bit of yoga practice, I suddenly realised, Oh yeah, I'm not taking a deep breath. I'm not breathing fully. But you're right. Being able to do that when it really matters in a sporting environment is actually the key.

Charlie Unwin:

Yoga is great for it. I mean, my sort of take on yoga and I try and do, you know, a few sessions a week is that I'm basically put into this horrific stress position and then told to breathe and relax whilst in these positions. And that's kind of exactly what we're going for. You know, we spoke last week about inviting stress. When in a way that's a really nice contained way of doing that through yoga. And it's why I always recommend yoga to every athlete, no matter what sport you do.

Amy Williams:

You know what I can like really relate to this because I've started to really realize over the last few weeks, when I'm, particularly in the car, I've got the boys in the back, they're yabbering away doing whatever. And I suddenly become aware that I'm not really breathing properly. I'm not taking full breaths. Then I get panicky of thinking, have I just missed a breath? You know, when you get into this sort of slight anxiety of breathing and not fully opening up those lungs.

Charlie Unwin:

Exactly that. And when don't use our lungs fully, that full capacity, it creates a chemical imbalance, which our body responds to through our stress response. So it is that poor breathing that is directly responsible for the stress response.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. Well, I've been trying to practice that kind of box breathing when you breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four, breathe out for four, pause for four. And sometimes I feel like I can't even do that for four that the count of four, and you're meant to be getting up to what the count of eight, the count of 10 or whatever.

Charlie Unwin:

And is that because you just can't breathe that deeply or you lose concentration?

Amy Williams:

Normally concentration, but no, I feel like I can't, I can't breathe that deeply. I feel like my lungs aren't expanding enough. Like, come on, what's happened. And you are probably under that slight tension that stress, or you've had a tough day. You haven't slept enough. And all these different things have really affected me.

Charlie Unwin:

It's so interesting because I've bet so many people at home will be kind of thinking, wow, you know, this is Amy Williams who struggles with this stuff. And I, you know, I feel this myself. I imagine, I might be wrong in this, but I imagine when you were in your performance routines, breathing became a much more kind of deliberate, well, practiced or at least ingrained part of what you did.

Amy Williams:

Whereas now I feel like I'm running around, like a headless chicken, you know? Yeah. You're a full time mom, you're trying to work, you're trying to do everything. And then you're living on this kind of like thing. And then the breathing and everything is just short, shallow breaths, not really doing those deep, nice exercises of square box breathing.

Charlie Unwin:

Which is exactly what we're going to do now, if you're up for it?

Amy Williams:

Let's do it. Yeah.

Charlie Unwin:

Okay. So we've wired Amy up on this little machine that I've got, and we're just going to explore the impact that breathing has and your physiology. If that's okay.?

So I'm going to get this going. And what we'll do is I'll explain what we're seeing as we go along. And hopefully you should all be able to see this on your screens as well. So the first thing we get is a pulse, which is good. Hopefully that's not too unexpected. We'll just let that settle down. Your heart rate at the moment; well it was 70 has now gone up to 80. But it does sort of move around quite a lot, which is actually what the top graph is all about. And it's really the top graph that we're most interested in because this is measuring your heart rate variance.

So this is the rate at which your heart is speeding up and slowing down over time. Now, the reason this is really important to us is because our hearts works a bit like the brake and accelerator of a car. So it accelerates something called the sympathetic nervous system, which kind of activates us. It gets us ready to respond, maybe to danger or threats. And then you get the parasympathetic response, the brake, which brings our heart rate back down and relaxes us. Some people call it the relaxation response.

So as we breathe in it activates the sympathetic response, as we breathe out it activates the parasympathetic response. So this is a very good proxy for how we're breathing. More than that when we get a nice flow pattern, which is what we're looking for, we actually want your heart to go up and go down in a steady rate over time. The greater, the peaks and troughs, and the more consistent the pattern, the more that we would say you're in a coherent state, and that has implications, not just for your body, your heart, but also how your brain is working as well, and whether you're likely to be thinking clearly.

So, if we look at this, I wouldn't say you're in a particularly incoherent state at this stage, you're probably concentrating, which is very nice. But if we got you to say, do something like sing a song for example, or do something which perhaps you didn't enjoy doing, if you did have to sing a song, what song would you say?

Amy Williams:

Well, I've been singing old McDonald all morning.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah, you can see that that's showing now with a response on your heart rate variance. However, you can see straight away that has an immediate sort of incoherent response, which is a sort of typical stress response. And when that's happening, it's kind of a bit like the brake and the accelerator jamming on at the same time. Now in the moment, that's okay. We can deal with that. If however, this was going on over the course of a whole day, we start to become exhausted. Become very incoherent. We don't communicate very effectively. We're unable to focus on one task at a time, things like that.

So it becomes really challenging and of course in our sporting performance, that becomes really important. So we're just going to think about your breathing now. And in fact, I'm going to tilt this down a little bit so that you don't focus on this. And the reason that I do that is because it's very easy to become distracted by what's going on the screen. But of course you're not in control of what's going on in the screen. You're in control of what's going on inside you. So by looking at the screen, we're taking that outside in mindset that we spoke about.

Amy Williams:

I know you start thinking, is this good? Is it bad? What's happening?

Charlie Unwin:

And in making those judgement calls we create a state of incoherence. Whereas if you just focus on what you're trying to do in the moment that will take care of itself. So it's a nice, subtle add on to mindset.

So just notice your breathing. And I want everyone at home to do this as well if you're watching this. So, just be aware of how you're breathing, be aware of how deeply you're breathing, whether you breathe quite low down from your stomach or quite high up in your chest, and we're going to encourage you all just to breathe deeply through your stomach, what we call diaphragmatic breathing. Okay. And I might ask you actually, just to uncross your legs, if that's okay, just to keep the body symmetrical and upright.

So I'd always encourage people to practice breathing in the posture, which is positive and akin to, you know, being in control, being confident. So, just practice that breathing and take nice deep breaths, maybe in, for five and out for five. And some people like to focus on the counting in, and the counting out.

Now nasal breathing can help when we're nice and relaxed in this scenario. So perhaps just think about breathing deeply in, through your nose and you can breathe out through your nose or your mouth. So if we're taking up all that oxygen on our in breath, counting in for five. And for every out-breath, I want you to focus now on just relaxing, just letting go and softening any muscles that have picked up any tension. Very often you might find they might be the muscles around your neck and shoulders. And we'll talk a little bit more about that in the next episode, but we're just going to focus on the breathing for now. Nice, deep breathing.

Charlie Unwin:

Okay. How are you feeling right now?

Amy Williams:

I'm concentrating. I'm thinking about it and yeah, I'm really trying to relax as I breathe out, try to take a really full breath in trying to do it for five. And just try to relax. I think I hold quite a lot of tension in my jaw, so just trying to relax it all and exactly do what you say.

Charlie Unwin:

Awesome. Okay. I want you to carry on doing this for a little bit longer. Okay. If that's okay. Because we have started to see a kind of, you can see here, a nice sort of flow state, so nice even up and down rhythm, but I think what we can do is let go a little bit more, really focus on the depth of the breathing all the way in all the way out. Just enjoy it. Almost pretend like you, weren't here with lights looking, you know, staring at you and all of that stuff. And really just to try to let go, and spend 30 seconds or so doing that. Okay. So nice really deep breaths in through the nose, in for five and out for five and just focus on the counting.

Okay. Brilliant. Perfect. You can stop there. Don't stop breathing whatever you do, you can carry on breathing like that. There's no reason why you shouldn't. Again, how do you feel? What do you notice?

Amy Williams:

Yeah, I actually was feeling quite relaxed, I thought I'd shut my eyes. I thought I'd block you all out, block everyone behind the cameras and just try and really concentrate.

Charlie Unwin:

Do you know what? It's really interesting that because, the first time round we did it and it was fine. In fact, what I'll do is I'll just show everyone on the screen. I'm going to stop this. And I'll just go back to what happens. So you can see here on your screen at the moment that yeah, we were getting that nice kind of flow pattern that in and out. And your heart was responding accordingly. So you're in a kind of, I'd say a state of mild coherence. Okay.

What I want to do, however, those peaks and troughs, I want to make much bigger if we can. And I just got the sense that actually it's one thing doing this on your own. It's another thing doing it you know, when you've got cameras pointing at you and also, when there's someone kind of giving you instructions very often, what I find is when I go quiet and just let the person get on with it, that they then find that they're able to get into it a little bit more. We didn't spend long doing it, but you can see here, the peaks and the troughs, the flows, and much deeper. So if we were to practice that for longer, I know that you would get better at doing it.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. Because then my brain started thinking, are we doing this for too long? Is the boss behind the camera thinking we're doing this for too long and that we're boring everyone watching it on YouTube. That's what my brain started to think about. So probably I then wasn't concentrated on my breathing.

Charlie Unwin:

And we all have negative self-talk right. And we all become aware, you know, teaching athletes to do breathing exercises, relaxation, visualisation, the toughest thing about them is making it part of who they are and what they do. It's okay for you to be stood on the start line with cameras, looking at you, because this is what you do. And you give yourself, you give yourself space to do that. But if we didn't train this and make it part of who you were, you would be quite self-conscious probably about doing that.

Amy Williams:

I remember doing one big, deep breath on the start line, just being like, okay, take it all in, breathe it out. Here we go. Yeah, let's go type of thing. But would I have had the guts or the time or thinking, is everyone else worried about what she doing? Why is she not going? Right.

Charlie Unwin:

I guess you would have had in your advantage, a whole period of routines. Practiced, well-formed routines that kept you on the straight and narrow, almost like a hand rail just to guide you along so long as you're doing the same things I am okay. So long as I'm focusing on the same things, I'm okay. In that final breath would have just released it.

Probably go back in time. Maybe we could have made that even greater, you know, got you breathing more as part of your routines. But it does show the power of routines, right?

Amy Williams:

Yeah, for sure.

Charlie Unwin:

So what we're going to do now is we're going to ramp this up a little bit because you know, this is the equivalent of doing it in a nice quiet space or, you know, by that mountain lake that we spoke about. But you know what, we have got to be able to do this when the heart rate is higher.

And what people don't realise is that this isn't an exercise we do at a low heart rate. This is something we have to get good at a high heart rates. When I was working with the skeleton team, certainly before the Sochi Olympics, I remember doing this. We had them all on cycling machines, a little bit of a clue as to what's about to happen; and getting that heart rate incrementally going up. And what they had to do is now get into a coherent state whilst at a raised heart rate. And if they couldn't do that, they would go back to the point that they could do it. And slowly we would incrementally build their capacity to get coherence at high heart rates.

Up for that?

Amy Williams:

Yeah. I'm intrigued. Can I do it?

Charlie Unwin:

Okay. So we're on the bike. The purpose of which we're going to get your heart rate going up a little bit, and we're just going to see what impact this has and your ability to stay coherent. So I'm just going to press that now and get going with that.

What I want you to do is just do what we're doing before. Okay. It's a slightly different way of doing it, but just focusing on your breathing, relax, you know, you don't have to think about anything at this stage or worry about other things. So nice deep breaths, in for five, out for five. We'll just give you a moment just to get in to a nice coherent state. Your goal is going to be just to stay in this nice state for as long as you can.

Amy Williams:

Okay.

Charlie Unwin:

So just while Amy is doing that, just for those of you at home, hopefully doing this as well, we can expect our heart to speed up and slow down about five times every minute. So it is fairly consistent. And it is the consistency of that and the amount with which it does that, that informs how coherent the state that we're in is.

What we typically find is that it's one thing being able to do it sat down in a nice environment. It's another thing, being able to do it as a heart rate starts to elevate, and we get a sort of physical stress on the body. But we absolutely can train ourselves to be able to do it. So Amy's in a nice sort of relatively coherent state at this point. Okay. It's moving quite nicely up and down. So what I'm going to get you to do Amy, is just stay focused on that, but just start cycling and we'll raise your heart rate a little bit.

And it's a little bit, um, strange doing this for the first time, because you normally get on the bike and you're focused on the physical exercise, the activity. But actually we're just maintaining attention on our breathing. It might of course be that we have to breathe a little bit quicker as our heart rate goes up. That's absolutely fine. It's the depth and the rhythm of your breathing that is important, even if that's a little bit quicker.

So you can see straight away that as Amy's heart rate starts to go up. It shoots up and now the computer will kind of flat line at the top for a moment, but in a moment it will sort itself out and we'll be able to see what kind of pattern we're getting from that. For now all we have to do is to stay focused on your breathing. I wouldn't do any more than that. Just sort of start bringing it back down. You've got a heart rate at the moment of about, between 70 and 80, that will go up steadily, but we probably don't need to push it much more than that.

So we've allowed the screen to settle now a little bit and you can see, as Amy's heart goes up, the heart rate patterns become less consistent, more incoherent. So this is exactly what we'd expect. Now you can see Amy's getting into it and at the same heart rate, can you see how it's much more consistent now? So we're comparing there on the screen, what's in the middle of your screen at the moment. And on the right hand side of the graph, you can see the difference there between Amy, when she's at the same heart rate, but in that first half, she's not very coherent, but now she's getting into that sort of coherent pattern.

So that's excellent. That's exactly what we want to achieve. And it's taken Amy probably, you know, a couple of minutes or so to kind of find that rhythm. Now we'd probably be in a position whereby we could go a little bit harder. Don't worry. You don't have to at this stage, but we could go harder and see if we can maintain that coherence at a high heart rate. Did you notice that?

Amy Williams:

So when we first started, I was doing the breathing in for five, out for five. In for five, out for five. Then when you told me to pick it up a bit and I could see my heart rate was going into that 80 90. I actually had to go in for three out for three. In for three out for three. So I think it was just trying to keep that rhythm. And then I was breathing in through the nose, out through the mouth. So that changed a bit. Yeah.

Charlie Unwin:

Yeah. Okay. Brilliant. So a few things there. It gets harder to breathe in through your nose. And the higher heart rate goes up you won't be able to carry on breathing in through your nose. Don't be afraid to breathe in through your mouth, get the air that you need to get in. But fundamentally it's the depth and rhythm of breathing. It doesn't matter if that's counting in for three and out for three. You don't even have to count if you don't want to.

Amy Williams:

I quite like counting because I think for me, counting gave me this, my brain was empty of everything else. And actually, if all I focused on was numbers that actually helped not concentrate on everything else around me.

Charlie Unwin:

So it becomes an almost mindful activity.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. And meditating at the same time.

Charlie Unwin:

Absolutely. Absolutely brilliant. So if you stop cycling now. And what we'll do is we'll just let, we can let your heart rate come down. I want you to get back into it. Okay. So really focus on that breathing. And of course, hopefully what should happen is that as we start to recover in our heart rate, we should find it easier to get into a strong coherent state.

Now I would absolutely encourage you to do this during interval training. It's a perfect opportunity to focus on the quality of recovery. Very often we focus on the physical efforts itself, and then recovery is kind of like a fairly passive one and it's not a particularly mindful recovery. This is exactly what I would call a mindful recovery, where we're allowing the heart rate to recover, but we're actually helping it by creating this coherent state by really controlling the depth and the quality of our breathing as we recover.

Okay. So again, we've just had to pause to let the computer do its thing, but you can see now that Amy's heart rate has come down, you can see how she just rediscovered that of coherent pattern much more easily. And actually, if she really kind of focuses on maintaining that, she probably would be able to, improve that, level of coherence. So how did you find that?

Amy Williams:

It was really interesting to do, and I think when you really concentrate and for me, the counting definitely helped counting in and counting out. As soon as I started doing that exercise and that breathing obviously changes, and you feel your heart rate going up, you're still trying to really concentrate, but I knew I had to decrease those numbers. In for three out for three, then I had to change the way I breathed with nose and mouth. Because I needed to get more oxygen.

And I think the thing is, was like, okay, don't panic here. Keep breathing, keep doing that. Keep focusing. So yeah, it was quite an interesting exercise. And then as we stopped and I was trying to bring that heart rate back down with the breathing and I managed to go from the count of three to the count of four. And then right at the end there, I got back into my fives. So you were quite aware of that.

Charlie Unwin:

And if you were doing interval training as part of this process you would probably be increasing the rate of recovery, which of course is everything in sport because that allows us to put a more quality effort when we do it.

Amy Williams:

Yeah. I think you can tell it's a very conscious thing that you're trying to do and becoming really aware of it and blocking off your mind to everything else, just to focus in on that one thing, the breathing.

Charlie Unwin:

It is harder than it sounds. You brilliantly articulate what goes on in everyone's head when they do this, even if they don't want to admit it, but it is just that how can something, so, that should be so simple. We really have to concentrate on it to do it well now of course, the more you practice this, the better you get. And I do this every single training session, I do this every single day in one form or another.

So, you know, now I am able to get those really nice, strong coherent patterns at heart rates of around 150 beats per minute. So when my body is under quite a lot of duress and stress, I'm able to maintain that. I guess you'd call it ice in the head fire in the body, something like that.

This is training, right? The more we practice this, the better we get at it. And next week, we'll layer relaxation into this a little bit more because we started to talk about that. And clearly it's an important component of doing this well and we were focused a bit more on the breathing.

Amy Williams:

Well, I'm very intrigued to see how that relaxation can come with all of this. So if you want to tune in next week, please ring that bell, set your reminders, subscribe, and we will catch you next week on the next episode.

Tune in next week for Episode 13

See you then!

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