Fresh Air Improves Athletes’ Performance

Recent research has found that strengthening inspiratory muscles with breathing exercises reduces the amount of oxygen those muscles need, making it available to the rest of the body.

We’ve all seen athletes start breathing heavily, trying to catch their breath in the midst of a game. This is especially true for sports that require a significant amount of running, like soccer, lacrosse, or track & field. Muscles, like most structures in the body, need oxygen to function. Physical exercise depletes oxygen levels, and as athletes exert themselves, the body works harder to get enough oxygen.

Recent research presented by a team from Indiana University at the 2010 American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting shows that simple breathing exercises can help the body optimize its use of oxygen during physical activities. Led by Louise Turner, a researcher in the department of Kinesiology at Indiana University, the study found that strengthening the inspiratory muscles through daily breathing exercise can reduce the amount of oxygen these same muscles need to function. This frees up oxygen to be used by other parts of the body.

For the study, 16 male cyclists age 18-40 performed breathing exercises for six weeks, to strengthen the muscles that allow them to breathe in the first place. According to Turner, the mere act of breathing during physical activities, like sports, can account for 10-15% of an athlete’s total oxygen consumption. Inspiratory muscle training has been previously shown to improve performance during sports, but Turner’s study was able to explain how the exercises lead to increased athletic performance.

“This study helps to provide further insight into the potential mechanisms responsible for the improved whole-body endurance performance previously reported following inspiratory muscle training,” Turner said in a press release.

The exercises that the cyclists performed utilized a hand-held device the gives off resistance as the test subjects inhale through it. This resistance forces the inspiratory muscles to work harder, strengthening them over time. Approximately half of the participants in the study used a device set to a level that provided resistance as the subjects inhaled sharply. During the six-week trial period, the test subjects took 30 breaths at this setting, twice a day. The other cyclists (the control group) performed the same exercises, with the device set to a lower level.

When the cyclists were put to the test after their six week, muscle-building period the researchers found the researchers who had worked their inspiratory muscles at the higher setting required 1% less oxygen during low intensity exercise, and 3-4% less oxygen during high intensity exercise.

Turner intends to continue investigating the affects of oxygen on energy and sports performance. Next, she will evaluate whether training the inspiratory muscles is actually providing more oxygen to other muscles, particularly those in the legs.
-Erin Podolak

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