ne of the primary measures athletes, especially endurance athletes, use to measure training progress is VO2 max and anaerobic threshold (AT.) Athletes with higher VO2 max and AT are usually the athletes that place well in competition.
Coaches usually prescribe strength and endurance training to increase these two measures. While helpful, there is a new weapon in the athlete's quiver that can increase VO2 max and AT. It's breath training.
Let's see how the science of breathing influences both VO2 max and AT. More specifically, we'll look at two breathing strategies that go directly to VO2 max and AT improvements.
Definitions of VO2 max and Anaerobic Threshold
VO2 max is simply defined as the maximum capacity of the body to transport and utilize oxygen during maximum athletic exertion. VO2 max says that not only do you need to move lots of oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, you must be able to get most if not all that oxygen out of the blood and into the muscle cells so energy can be produced.
Interesting note: research shows that most athletes get more than enough oxygen in through the lungs and to the blood BUT they have problems getting the available oxygen out of the blood into the muscle cells. You'll see why in a couple of paragraphs.
Anaerobic Threshold or AT is the point where muscle cell energy production shifts from anaerobic respiration (energy production process using oxygen) to anaerobic respiration (energy production process not using oxygen.) This shift typically happens when not enough oxygen is available in the muscle cells to keep the aerobic engine running. This shift also changes the amount of energy produced. With aerobic respiration, 32 molecules of ATP are produced. During anaerobic respiration, only 2 molecules of ATP are produced along with lactic acid.
The goal is to raise the athlete's AT level high enough that the shift from aerobic to anaerobic respiration never happens. Let's take a look at two breathing strategies the athlete can employ to stay aerobic.
Strategy 1 – Use the Breath to Improve Muscle Oxygenation
Muscle energy is derived through the marriage of glucose, from the food we eat, and oxygen. This marriage occurs in our muscle cells and produces an offspring called ATP, the fuel muscle cells burn. The more oxygen that gets to the muscles, the more ATP and (important) less lactic acid is produced.
As oxygen is carried from the lungs to the muscles, by hemoglobin cells, a small chemical reaction must occur before the blood will release the oxygen for absorption by muscle cells. This chemical reaction involves the mixing of carbon dioxide and water, which changes the pH of the blood slightly, allowing for the oxygen to be released.
If there is less carbon dioxide in the blood, due to excessive breathing blowing off carbon dioxide with each exhale, less oxygen gets released to the muscles. Less energy is produced and more lactic acid is created. This process was discovered in 1904 by Dr. Christian Bohr and is known as the Bohr Effect.
Big, deep and heavy breathing during exercise is detrimental to carbon dioxide retention in the blood and muscle oxygenation. Changing how we breathe can minimize carbon dioxide loss during exercise. This is key to muscle oxygenation and the resulting increase in both VO2 max and AT.
Strategy 2 – Employ Breathing Techniques that Increase the Blood's Oxygen Carrying Capacity
Muscle oxygenation is limited by the amount of available oxygen in the blood. The amount of available oxygen is governed by the number of oxygen carrying blood cells, hemoglobin. Each hemoglobin cells carries four oxygen molecules in the blood. If we can increase the number of hemoglobin cells, we can increase the amount of oxygen available for absorption by muscles and, therefore, improve VO2 max.
There are many techniques athletes use to increase their oxygen carrying capacity. Doping drugs such as erythropoietin (EPO) are effective, illegal and can cause serious health issues. Another way is high-altitude training, that is training and resting at altitude.
Unfortunately, altitude training is impractical for most athletes given where they live and work. However, there are now breathing techniques that simulate high-altitude training. They are effective at sea level, take 10-15 minutes a day and can be easily incorporated into the athlete's training regiment.
Breathing is an important factor in increasing VO2 max and AT. Breathing correctly increases muscle oxygenation, contributing to both VO2 max and AT. Breathing techniques that simulate high-altitude training increase the blood's oxygen carrying capacity and enhance VO2 max. How you breathe really matters, especially for athletes.