A True Modern Athlete Hero

Breathe Easier…Run Faster


When running hard, we breathe hard, but most of us concentrate only on the effect that hard running has on our legs. Few of us consider that our respiratory muscles also get tired and this often leads to poor performance. The good news is that your respiratory muscles can be trained independently of the rest of your body. And a strong respiratory system can lead to better running. Chantelle Wehmeyer, biokineticist, explains how.

Many runners are under the impression that their legs are the most important part of their running performance; if the legs fatigue, the body slows down. But what few runners understand is that their legs often let them down because of weak respiratory muscles. As these muscles fatigue, the nervous system redirects oxygen from the muscles of the limbs to those of the diaphragm. And often this is when you experience a feeling of tiredness and heaviness in your legs.

The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located just below the lungs and heart, which separates the thoracic and abdominal cavities. The intercostal muscles run between the ribs. The diaphragm and intercostal muscles are the so-called ‘respiratory muscles’. 

During exercise the body’s demand for oxygen increases and our breathing volume or ventilation must also rise. This requires the numerous muscles surrounding the lungs to contract in a highly-coordinated manner. As the intensity of exercise increases, these respiratory muscles need to contract more forcefully and more rapidly to keep pace with the body’s substantial increase in metabolism. Like any muscles in the body, these muscles can become tired, and this results in a decrease in breathing capacity; exercise will feel harder and performance may suffer.

Clinical studies are proving that the body’s ability to exercise, particularly at high intensities, is significantly limited by the performance of the respiratory system.

Some athletes are sceptical about respiratory muscle training. After all, doesn’t the respiratory system get a challenging workout every time we train strenuously? The answer is yes, to some extent, but current research indicates the importance of specific respiratory muscle training for improved performance.

This is because during high-intensity exercise, such as long distance running, the respiratory muscles demand a significant amount of cardiac output, that is, the blood delivered to the body by the heart. With only so much blood available, if the respiratory muscles take more, less is available for the skeletal muscles. 

However, if the respiratory muscles become stronger and more efficient as a result of respiratory muscle training, they will need less energy, oxygen and blood to support specific exercise intensities. This will, in effect, ‘free up’ blood and oxygen for the leg muscles, and could result in a remarkable increase in endurance (up to 27%), as well as reduced overall blood-lactate levels. 

Exercise feels easier after inspiratory (breathing in) muscle training.
Exercise conditioning increases the amount of air that is regularly brought into the lungs each minute, and thus the amount of oxygen that can be extracted and delivered by the heart and vascular system to the exercising muscles. Along with the changes in the capillaries at the muscle cell level, this training effect allows you to run longer and stronger without becoming anaerobic (without oxygen) in your metabolism. 

Specific training for the respiratory muscles is performed independently of normal whole body exercise (such as running or swimming) and is generally carried out in one of two ways: 

Isocapnic hyperpnoea – This method requires the individual to breathe at an increased volume of ventilation for an extended period (20-30 minutes). This is similar to the breathing demands of endurance exercise and primarily helps develop respiratory muscle endurance. 

Threshold loading – This method focuses on building respiratory muscle strength by breathing for short durations (5-10 minutes) against a resistance. This is a similar approach to traditional weight training.

The devices described below have been developed to allow both forms of training and are now commercially available:
1  Pflex? – The Pflex? is a highly effective inspiratory muscle trainer. It has been designed around the principle of resistance to intake of air into the lungs, which makes respiratory muscles work harder. It provides an easy, convenient and practical way to train respiratory muscles at home.
2  Threshold Inspiratory Muscle Trainer (IMT) –
This device provides consistent and specific pressure for inspiratory muscle strength and endurance training regardless of how quickly or slowly patients breathe. It helps to increase respiratory muscle strength, endurance and tolerance.

Specific respiratory muscle training immediately before whole body exercise may help to improve performance. In an interesting study, a short bout of low-resistance breathing exercises was added to the standard warm up for a group of well-trained athletes. The average power output increased, while measures of breathing discomfort decreased. It appears that, similar to the peripheral muscles, the respiratory muscles
may benefit from a warm-up specific to the requirements of athletic competition.

There are various methods you can use to increase your respiratory muscle strength, including these techniques, which you can use in the comfort of your own home. First, practice taking a deep breath. Typically during a normal breath we use only 10-15% of our lungs. During exercise, we only increase the rate, not the depth of our breathing. Although deep breathing is more work and uses a bit more energy, the payoff can be that 1-2% edge in a competitive situation. Here are some ways to make it happen:
Exhale more completely – If you exhale more completely, it is easier to take a deep breath. The usual rhythm is: exhale to a count of three, followed by inhaling to a count of two.
Take belly breaths – As you concentrate on deep breathing, push your diaphragm down and your abdominal muscles out. If you are doing it correctly, your abdominals will expand more than your chest. Remember to let your belly expand when you breathe in. Do not just raise your shoulders and chest. Do not pull your belly inward when breathing in; let it push outwards as air fills your lungs.
Synchronize your breathing – Try to synchronize your respiratory rhythm to that of your cadence. Remember the 3:2 ratio of exhale to inhale.

Always keep in mind that regardless of the proposed benefits of specific respiratory muscle training, it is generally agreed that the influence of such training on performance could be small. For this reason, it may not be wise to undertake specific respiratory muscle training at the expense of traditional methods of physical training. However, if your fitness levels are well-developed, specific respiratory muscle training may provide you with an extra performance edge.
Modern Athlete Expert –
Registered biokineticist in Edenvale, Johannesburg. Member of Sunward Athletic Club with eight years running experience. Attempting her first Comrades Marathon this year.