Peak Performance – A Short Cut To Achieving It

Quote on not changingWhat do a saxophonist, a top class swimmer, an opera singer, a fighter pilot and an Olympic marksmen all have in common?

Think of it for a moment because there is a common skill that unites all of them. Not only that, but it’s a skill that you could learn and benefit from if you wanted to.

And I’m making a huge assumption here because obviously I don’t know that you cannot do what I’m talking about proficiently, but most people can’t, or rather don’t.

That’s in large part because most people have no clue as to how beneficial and crucial this skill is to their performance, long-term health and ability to deal with adversity.

It’s seldom talked about at schools, I know of no blogs dedicated to it and I’ve never read a book on it or seen a TV program about it.

Which is all very weird when you consider it’s the single most important thing you do every day and you can’t go much more than a minute or so without indulging yourself.

By now I’m gathering you have cottoned on to the fact I’m talking about breathing.

The Peak Performance State

Certain sports and occupations like the ones mentioned in the first paragraph require a high level of breath control.

Some like singing, swimming and playing any woodwind instrument are easy to understand, but so are sports like marksmanship when you realize heart rate is heavily influenced by breathing.

The problem is though, that whereas most people understand that breath control is important for sports and music, they think that’s where it starts an ends.

They’re wrong.

Every time you take a breath in you activate your sympathetic nervous system.

Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your fight or flight response and every inhale you perform triggers a tiny and imperceptible fight or flight reaction.

But worry not because that low level fight or flight response is needed to keep you alert and on the ball.

Without it your get up and go would have got up and gone and you would find it impossible to do much of anything

Fortunately nature is brilliant at balancing things out, and so every inhale is naturally followed by an exhale.

And guess what happens when you exhale?

The Dance Of The Breath

Yep, you’ve got it, your parasympathetic nervous system is kicked into action and this time you have a mini sense of ease and calm.

Until that is, your breath in again.

This see-saw effect is happening to you all the time and has already occurred several times as you have been reading this post without you even realizing it, cool eh?

Well it is kind of cool, but it can also be very uncool if you regularly get into stressful situations and develop patterns of breathing more designed to engage the sympathetic than parasympathetic part of your autonomic nervous system.

Regularly breathing rapidly from high up in your chest feels stressful at best and when the inhale starts to become longer than the exhale can be a severe panic attack at worst.

The Bad News

That kind of breathing not only fails to oxygenate your blood properly and can cause lightheadedness and fuzzy thinking, but it also raises cortisol and adrenaline production which accompany the fight or flight response.

Cortisol and adrenaline are great if your house is on fire and you have to carry your sick grandmother and her 14 cats out to safety, or even doing more mundane things like giving a presentation that’s important to you.

However, too much too often is like trying to drive by jamming your foot hard down on the gas pedal whilst pulling the handbrake with all your might. You will manage to move forward, but at what cost?

Chronic and untreated stress can cause this kind of breathing to arise and become a pattern rather than a simple, natural and useful reaction to an occasional situation.

Then even when you’re not in an obvious stressful situation your body doesn’t realize it because your breathing and thus your heart rate are telling it otherwise.

It has got so used to breathing incorrectly that it continues unabated and unnoticed, compromising your immune system and building a cycle of stress and anxiety that can even continue as you sleep, or more likely, struggle to sleep.

The Good News

Fortunately, any cycle of behavior only continues if we don’t step in at a conscious level and intervene.

When I talk to clients about dealing with stress, one of the things I do is encourage them to check in with their breathing several times per day and see what’s going on.

They almost always notice that they’re not breathing slowly and deeply and that’s the time to take a half dozen deep breaths making sure their exhale is about 25-50% longer than their inhale.

Think about that sense of a long, slow exhale, it’s tricky to do when you’re stressed isn’t it? It’s not a natural reaction.

But with practice it can be done, and  it will immediately start to ease your agitated state.

There are a number of reasons meditation can help with stress not least of which is the fact that many meditations focus in on the breath and help raise our awareness of this incredible thing we mostly take for granted.

The holidays are bearing down fast on us and for many people they can be a stressful time.

So if Uncle Bob has one too many glasses of mulled wine and passes out slumping head first into the turkey knocking it straight into the mouth of your waiting dog, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself, at least the dog’s happy.

Now go and share this information, especially if you have kids.

I know they’ll look at you like you’re nuts, if you tell them you are about to teach them how to breathe, but don’t be deterred because it will improve their long-term health allow them to operate at peak performance more easily and may very well lengthen their life.

Now doesn’t that beat teaching them Christopher Columbus discovered America, when he didn’t?