Russian Breathing & Relaxation Techniques for Superior Performance
Before focusing on anything else, an athlete must become strong first.
But what comes second?
The three lines below follow the improvement in different qualities—strength, power, and the speed of voluntary muscle relaxation—in game athletes from a low intermediate level on the left to advanced on the right:
In 17 out of the 20 sports evaluated by Russian scientists the relaxation ability was more important than either strength or power at the elite level. It was suggested that the strength and power reached by high intermediates (Level I-CMS) are sufficient for reaching world class performance in many events—and further performance growth is made through improved relaxation.
(In case you decide that you are already strong enough after reading this, consider that Russian boxers snatch their bodyweight and teenage girl jumpers casually single leg squat with 40-50kg for sets and reps. These “intermediate” standards will not impress any weightlifter or powerlifter but they are not something that you will reach casually. Yes, you still must be strong first.)
The benefits of muscle relaxation training
Soviet sports scientists realized the necessity to improve voluntary muscle relaxation back in the 1930s.
Research in the decades that followed revealed the benefits of training it to be powerful and many:
- Increases speed
- Significantly correlates with reactive ability and explosive strength
- Increases endurance—without compromising speed-strength
- Improves coordination
- Decreases the motor reaction time
- Accelerates recovery after training
- Reduces injuries induced by fatigue
- Lowers overtraining odds
- Improves special work capacity and athletic performance
- Has a favorable effect on the function of inner organs
- Strengthens resistance to physical and psychological stress
- Increases athletic longevity
Traditionally, athletic training has been a zero sum game. You have a limited “pie” of time and recovery and whenever you give one quality a bigger “slice”, you have to take some away from another quality. Relaxation training is philosophically opposite: it builds a bigger pie. Not only training this quality does not take anything away from others—it gives a bump to other attributes plus accelerates recovery to enable you to train longer and harder (or just to have more energy and feel better).
How do elite athletes and soldiers react to extreme stimuli?
A high performing unit—machine, animal, or human—comes with well-tuned “on” and “off” switches (technically speaking, “a balance of excitation and inhibition in the CNS”).
A less effective one has its “on” switch stuck.
Any voluntary movement starts with excitation of the appropriate nerve cells in the brain. They in turn signal the muscles to contract. Inhibition of these neurons causes the muscles to relax. If the CNS is overexcited or inhibition (the “off” switch) is not powerful enough, some of these neurons will remain turned on and keep commanding the muscles to contract at times when they should be relaxing. This trace bioelectrical activity disrupts coordination between muscles and makes the body fight itself. This reduces speed and is the main reason of serious injuries and muscle tears, according to Prof. Yuri Vysochin.
This “driving with the brakes on” obviously demands more energy. But the constant tension also hampers circulation and limits the aerobic metabolism. Glycolysis gets out of control and acidosis sets in, with a long list of problems.
To make the matters worse, all these bad news further excite the CNS, feeding a vicious circle. Like a fly in a web, the more it thrashes, the worse things get…
When a mere mortal equipped with a “hyper” nervous system and muscles that fight themselves ends up in a stressful situation, his performance—speed, power, coordination, endurance—rapidly tanks.
In contrast, a high performer relaxes when the going gets tough. His CNS gets inhibited sharply reducing any trace bioelectrical activity in his muscles. As a result, the speed of muscular relaxation dramatically increases—up to 70-80%!
These extended relaxation pauses give the muscles more time to rest and the blood vessels more time to deliver oxygen and to remove waste. The engine is purring, the plumbing is humming… Energy production demands plummet, manifesting in a decreased heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure, lactate and stress hormones levels. The entire organism’s efficiency goes way up and the work capacity with it.
The second reaction, seen in athletic and military elite, is a manifestation of the relaxation mechanism of acute defense mobilization against extreme stimuli (RMAD) discovered by Prof. Vysochin.
You have heard another name for this phenomenon—the “second wind”.
Time to get RMAD!
RMAD is not just about endurance. The “second wind” is a generalized reaction that improves your tolerance to all sorts of stressors: exercise, hypoxia, hypothermia, etc. RMAD will make you “anti-fragile”.
Many people strongly manifest the “hyper” reaction, a minority (including most elite athletes), the relaxation reaction, with the rest somewhere in the middle.
The great news is, Russian scientists concluded that these adaptation types are not genetically predetermined and can be changed by training.
It takes a special combination of stimuli to cause an acute relaxation reaction. Repeated enough times, the reaction becomes long term.
Ideally, an athlete should aim to develop the relaxation adaptation type as early as possible in his or her career. In other words, you do not have to wait until you are “strong first” before you start practicing being “relaxed second”. For best results, tackle both at once, the Yang and the Yin.
Breathe less for greater performance and health
One of the most powerful stimuli for developing RMAD is hypoxia/hypercapnia: less oxygen and more carbon dioxide. Precisely calibrated; undisciplined breath holding might do more harm than good.
Soviet scientists discovered that hypoxia is a powerful training stimulus for improving athletic results. And more than that: training in the conditions of mild oxygen shortage improves resistance towards a variety of pathogens, from blood loss to radiation. One Russian scientist summed up that hypoxic training promotes “an increase in organism’s compensatory reserves, a perfection of health mechanisms”. Another concluded that, “Hypoxia is… a universal general cause of adaptation”.
Counterintuitively, hypoxic training improves oxygen supply of tissues, oxygen utilization by cells, aerobic metabolism. Hypoxia is “at least partially responsible for… increasing muscle mitochondrial and capillary density.” (The Second Wind curriculum is a perfect fit with Strong Endurance™.)
Hypoxia/hypercapnia can be induced by expensive or impractical means like high altitude and special devices—or simply by breath holding and voluntarily reduced breathing—hypoventilation.
Russians pioneered hypoventilation training back in 1967 and have done a lot since then. In 2015 pre-eminent sports scientist Prof. Nikolay Volkov flat out proclaimed hypoxic training to be one of the priority methods for world’s leading runners.
Noticeable improvements are seen, even in highly trained athletes, after just a month of introducing hypoventilation.
For instance, in a four-week experiment swimmers breathed less during 25% of their swimming training load. They were tested on veloergometers—to make sure the improvements had nothing to do with technique. Consider their improvements after a month:
- Power during a maximal load to limit time to exhaustion +21.8% (compared to +1.1% for the controls)
- Blood lactate after the test -27.5% compared to the control group
- Oxygen utilization co-efficient +11.2% (while the controls’ decreased)
In another experiment after weeks of veloergometer training with multiple breath holds athletes were able to perform a standard load at a lower heart rate and with a decreased glycolytic contribution.
Interval hypoxic training increased the glycolytic loads the athletes could handle—without an increase in blood lactate! Their alactic power also improved.
Russian scientists concluded that hypoxia tolerance is an integral indicator of how fine-tuned the organism’s regulatory systems are. (Although this is not a topic of the seminar, this has tremendous implications for “health training”.)
And that it tightly correlates with athletic performance. In a study involving 170 women and 154 men, athletes of different levels (from low intermediate to advanced) and from a range of sports established a direct statistically significant correlation between the athlete’s level and hypoxia tolerance:
Breath holding is not for amateurs
But before you cut back on your breathing, you must understand that it has to be done right.
On one hand, there are all these remarkable performance benefits just mentioned (plus various therapeutic effects in a variety of conditions and diseases, including serious ones, that are not a part of the seminar).
On the other, “…any pathological state is directly or indirectly related to the… oxygen budget disturbance.” Bursts of free radicals produced as tissues get reoxygenated following hypoxia are a part of that story.
The dose makes the poison. Consider that while properly timed exposure to moderately high altitude is favorable to health and performance, going too high and/or staying there too long has opposite effects. Sherpas have a surprisingly low mitochondrial mass. After a two-month Himalayan expedition the concentration of products free radical damage in mountaineers’ muscles went up by 235%.
In other words, hypoxic training must be done according to the standards established by specialists, not haphazardly (“I can hold my breath longer than you!”).
And even some professionally developed hypoventilation systems are not optimal for athletes. For instance, one respected method was developed by an MD for medical, rather than athletic, applications. A number of coaches have discovered that, for all its benefits, this popular method reduces the lung capacity, which is unacceptable for athletes.
At the Second Wind seminar we will exclusively teach you methods and techniques developed by Russian sports scientists specifically for athletes.
And, when we talk about breathing, you will learn a lot more than how get RMAD…
More powerful reasons to train your breathing
Thousands of years ago our ancestors realized that disciplined breathing yielded tremendous power. Breathing practices shrouded in mysticism were developed around the world. Some effective, some harmful, others worthless. More are still sprouting today, some useful, others pure psychobabble. In contrast, the breathing systems developed by Russian scientists are firmly rooted in physiology and thoroughly tested in the field.
The benefits of scientific breathing practice are many. First, the control of many functions that mere mortals cannot control.
- Activate your sympathetic (mobilize) or parasympathetic (relax and recover) nervous system by manipulating the length of inhalations, exhalations, and breath holds and some other breathing parameters. For instance:
- “Mobilizing breath”—very simple, yet highly effective
- “Triphasic breath”—just as simple and calming
- “1+3 breath”—quite complex, but with a wide array of physical and psychological benefits
- Breath holding alone is an art form—and the correct dosage is even more important than in strength training.
- A laundry list of medical dangers of hyperventilation used in many popular “deep breathing” schools—and targeted advice on when and how to hyperventilate with minimal risks and maximal benefits:
- Mobilize for a max effort in select athletic events (in many max effort exercises and lifts hyperventilation can be dangerous and even lethal).
- Improve performance in events like running 400m (in competition, not in training).
- Quickly recover between or after bouts of intense acid producing exercise.
- Learn an awesome “hypoxic warm-up” for endurance and combat sports.
The above techniques will get you into the right physical and mental state before an effort and help you recover and wind down after. The next batch will teach you how to breathe skillfully during training and competition:
- Discover how the breathing rhythm influences movement and vice versa—and how to make it work for you in sports ranging from bicycle racing to boxing. This is a game changer.
- What breathing skill should you teach a beginner athlete after coaching him to breathe briefly and rhythmically?… This particular skill is an ace in the hole in all sports demanding endurance, from running to combat sports. Two groups of beginner women runners were tested on 800m. A week later they were retested. The experimental group that was taught this particular breathing skill improved their time by 13.5sec—while the control group by only 3sec.
- Master a unique breathing technique that improves oxygen binding with hemoglobin. National and world class 800m and 1,500m runners were tested at different speeds on a treadmill. Then they were taught this technique and retested five days later. At the same speeds, the following parameters decreased by:
- Respiration rate -30-35%
- Minute respiration volume -10-20%
- Blood lactate -25-50%
- Heart rate -3-5%
- Oxygen and pulse cost per meter -10-15%
Equally impressive results were seen in long distance runners. For instance, the blood lactate was measured in an elite male marathoner (sub-2:10) running 12K at a given fast pace. He was taught the technique and retested a week later. His lactate went down from 9.4 to 3.65—almost three-fold.
This technique that can be mastered in 3-4 days.
In addition to developing the breathing skills, an athlete who aims for the top must strengthen and condition his respiratory muscles. Because in metabolically demanding exercise they use up to 20-25% of the total oxygen consumption, training the diaphragm & Co. could make a difference between winning and not even placing.
- Learn a number of powerful techniques for strengthening your inspiration and expiration musculature.
Conditioning your breathing muscles has another, unexpected, benefit. Research has demonstrated that the rate of perceived shortness of breath very tightly correlates with the rate of perceived exertion—and that strengthening and conditioning the respiratory muscles reduces the RPE at the same work intensity. That means a greater output at the same effort.
Training one’s breathing has a wide range of powerful benefits. Enough said.
Onto relaxation and efficiency techniques that are not breathing based.
“Fast and loose”, contract-relax, and more
“An element of any athletic movement, relaxation is an important art of the movement skill,” stated Prof. Yuri Verkhoshansky. “Developing it demands rather long and focused training.”
- Understand the role of the movement frequency in “fast and loose” drills—and how to optimize it.
- Effective additions to the F&L drills taught at SFG Kettlebell Instructor Certs.
- A complex of ten partner F&L exercises—perfect for group training.
- A contract-relax method of tension and relaxation mastery that can be practiced anywhere, lying down or sitting. You are on a bus or a boring social event and people around you do not even suspect you are training…
- …plus six techniques to make the above contract-relax practice more challenging and powerful.
- A highly unusual and very effective complex combining muscle relaxation and power exercises.
- Learn what types of strength and power exercises improve your muscle relaxation ability—and what types make it worse. Some answers will surprise you.
- Explosive “burst” isometrics immediately followed by a relaxation, common in Russian wrestling, develop much more than starting strength and are not exclusive to wrestlers. A year-long experiment on female volleyball players doing such exercises delivered the following improvements: spiking strength +17.2%, motor reaction time -14.7%, flexibility +39.7% (with less significant improvements in the control group).
- Why much of fast skills practice must be done at so-called controlled speeds rather than maximal speed.
- The method of a progressively increasing speed that Prof. Verkhoshansky employed “to harmonize speed and technique”.
- How to use variable and step-wise load methods in your athletic practice and strength and conditioning training to learn to precisely calibrate efforts—with resulting improvements in speed, power, and endurance.
- The more the aerobic energy system contributes to work, the more economical your energy expenditure. A downside of the aerobic system is it is slow to get going: in low level athletes it takes 4-5min to deploy to full power. In elite athletes it takes only a minute. Do not wait until you are elite; learn how train to accelerate your aerobic deployment today.
The Second Wind
Always looking for the edge, for three quarters of a century Soviet and Russian sports scientists have studied, invented, and perfected numerous breathing and relaxation methods. From basic muscle shaking drills to sophisticated tension mastery protocols to esoteric breathing exercises.
Most of these techniques are simple to learn, easy to do, require no special equipment, and can be incorporated into your regular training or done anywhere, anytime.
They work for all healthy people, from general fitness newbies to intermediate athletes to champions.
(Go at your own pace at the seminar; this is not an instructor cert and there are no tests.)
These low-tech/high concept methods, taught by Pavel at the Second Wind seminar, deliver remarkable improvements in sports performance and well-being:
- Reaction time
- Endurance—without compromising power
- Resilience—physical and psychological
- Athletic longevity
Feel awesome. Be awesome.