As I noted in Retraining the Ribcage, people often go to secondary respiratory muscles when the diaphragm is dysfunctional. Often you’ll see the scalenes kick into overdrive to elevate the ribs (middle and anterior scalenes attach the the first rib, and posterior to second or third rib) and aid in respiration. Another common compensation is pec minor lighting up to elevate the ribs (due to it’s attachment to the thrid to fifth ribs). While it helps, these are poor mechanics that in the long run will inhibit proper function of the inner unit of the core.
If you add to the mix that runners spend so much time in an anterior weight shift and have the tendency to return to the fetal position with injury, it’s no surprise that the muscles shorten even further to the point where athletes are rounded over at the shoulders and are using an upper chest breathing pattern.
As often is the case, I begin to be a bit more vigilant of things after having written about them, so I played around with some of these ideas while working at the Ironman Arizona Expo. More often than not (and considering the amount of time these guys spend on the bike) these triathletes had incredibly tender segments of pec minor and obvious anterior tilt of their scapulae. With lots of swimming, this is just a shoulder injury waiting to happen. Interestingly, with just a little bit of targeted soft tissue therapy to the pec minor and some cuing, there was a noticeable decrease in chest elevation.
While using a ball to get into the area with the athlete lying prone was somewhat effective, it is far and away easier to administer self-massage to the pec minor by flexing the shoulder to ninety degrees and horrizontally adducting the humerus, while using the other hand to hook into the tissue and provide pressure.
In addition to the soft tissue work, the addition of some stretching techniques can be helpful in restoring the requisite length of the tissue. I’ve found that stretching in the corner while cuing the athlete to “pull his shoulder blades to the opposite hips” to be an effective method.
Keep your eyes peeled, because later today I’ll post a video that my friend Patrick Ward and I filmed recently demonstrating several ways to evaluate breathing patterns in athletes.