few years back, I completed a market research project to understand what athletes (recreational, competitive and elite) wanted from an exercise/performance improvement program. The clear answers were improved speed, endurance and exercise enjoyment. In looking at the science of breathing, three breathing strategies emerged to accomplish these goals:
Let's take a look at each of these three items below.
1 – Improve the “Running Economy” of the Body
The goal here is to be a more efficient machine, directing as much energy as possible to muscle activity and less to basic body functions. This is known as “running economy.” Regular exercise training helps but it only goes so far.
Breath training takes running economy to a whole new level in three ways:
2 – Optimize the Muscle Oxygenation Process
Muscle energy is derived through the marriage of glucose, from the food we eat, and oxygen. This marriage occurs in 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 less lactic acid is produced.
As oxygen is carried from the lungs to the muscles, hemoglobin in the blood, a chemical reaction must occur to release the oxygen from the hemoglobin. Carbon dioxide and water mix and change the pH of the blood slightly, allowing for the oxygen to be released. This process was discovered in 1904 by Dr. Christian Bohr and is known as the Bohr Effect.
If there's not enough carbon dioxide in the blood, due to large breaths blowing it off when we exhale, less oxygen is released from the hemoglobin and absorbed by the muscles. As a result, less energy is produced.
Breathing correctly, minimizing carbon dioxide loss during exercise, is key to proper muscle oxygenation. Specific breathing techniques have been developed to balance the need for oxygen during exercise with the retention of adequate carbon dioxide for oxygen transfer to muscles.
3 – Increase the Blood's Oxygen Transport Capacity
Muscle oxygenation is limited by the amount of oxygen in the blood. The amount of oxygen is governed by the number of oxygen carrying blood cells, hemoglobin. Each hemoglobin cell carries four oxygen molecules. Increasing the number of hemoglobin cells, increases the amount of oxygen that can be absorbed by muscles.
There are several techniques athletes use to increase their oxygen carrying capacity. Doping drugs such as EPO are effective, illegal and can cause serious health issues. Another way is high-altitude training, that is training, recovery and sleeping 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 can be done at done at any altitude, including sea level, take 10-15 minutes a day and can easily be incorporated into the athlete's training regiment.
Breathing is an important factor in how well your body processes perform during exercise. The better these body processes work, the better the athletes speed, endurance and exercise enjoyment. How you breathe matters, especially for athletes.