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  Last updated: 12/21/2010

Breathing for Highly Trained Athletes

Air from your surroundings is brought into the lungs during pulmonary ventilation. After being adequately warmed and moistened in the upper airways (nasal passages, trachea, and bronchi) it ultimately moves through the bronchioles and alveolar ducts to the alveoli where gas exchange occurs - oxygen diffusing across the alveolar lining into the blood and carbon dioxide out into the alveoli.

The diaphragm muscle makes an airtight separation between the abdominal and thoracic cavities. During inspiration it flattens, increasing the space (and negative pressure relative to the atmosphere) in the thoracic cavity while decreasing the volume of the abdominal cavity (unless the abdominal muscle relax to offset this effect). During exercise, the intercostal muscles and other thoracic wall muscles (the accessory muscles of respiration) contract to aid the expansion (and increase the negative pressure) in the thoracic cavity. During expiration the opposite occurs in the diaphragm and accessory respiratory muscles, the thoracic cavity decreases in size, and air flows out of the lungs.

With exercise conditioning, you will increase 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 ride longer and stronger without becoming anaerobic in your metabolism.


Would specific respiratory muscle training help the performance of trained, elite athletes?? Let's see what the literature has to say.

I think the following are fair comments based on these articles:


First, practice deep breathing. With a normal breath we generally use only 10 to 15% of our lungs capacity. And during exercise, we tend to increase the rate, not the depth of our breathing. Although deep breathing is more work, and uses a bit more energy, the pay off can be that 1 - 2% edge in a competitive situation. Here are 4 changes you might consider:

A variation of pursed lip breathing focuses on the rhythm of respiration. Ian Jackson has developed a program, BreathPlay, which teaches skills in controlling ones expiration (and as a result, subsequent inspiration) of air. He notes that ", athletes discover that pushing air out is a much more efficient way of meeting oxygen demands than sucking air in. They also discover how the active outbreath can bring powerful precision to any movement. The BreathPlay paradigm advocates using the active outbreath to setup a spinal stretch which is then released with the passive inbreath." It taps into the power of both "focus" and "hypnotherapy" to achieve performance gains.

A reader comment suggests that a set 3:2 ratio in rhythmic breathing is not necessarily right for everyone: "This is what confuses me. I am not a "highly trained athlete" but when I exercised by riding my stationary bicycle I used to measure my heart beats using a heart rate monitor. I experimented with different rhythms of breathing and found out that at the same load and speed using 3/2 as stated above would force my heart to work harder (faster) than when using count of 3 for inhale and 2 for exhale (or 4 and 3 respectively) . The difference was not big - it was about 3% - but I could feel it immediately." - SC

My response was that rhythmic breathing is helpful for me personally - and suggested the focus in this area of training should be on developing a regular breathing rhythm that works for you rather than any specific inhale/exhale ratio.


Does pursed lip breathing provide an advantage by creating a back pressure to keep the collapsing airways open? According to Frand Day MD ( "Back pressure to keep the airways open on exhalation is really only necessary in seriously diseased lungs (such as seen in intensive care units). This is not normally necessary in athletes whose lungs are functioning normally (asthma attacks aside, where purse lips breathing is of little benefit). Moving air in and out of the lungs is a simple matter of physics. The volume of air moved depends upon the anatomy of the airways and the delta P (pressure) between the alveoli and the outside. On inhalation the expanding chest tends to open the airways, somewhat reducing the delta p necessary to move the required amount of air but exhalation tends to close the airways, requiring a higher delta p, but pursing the lips does nothing to change the required delta p if the lungs have normal amounts of elastic supportive tissue that normally keeps the airways open. As stated before, this increased back pressure is most useful is seriously diseased lungs and I am not aware of any data to show it useful in normal athletes."


There are good reasons to breathe through your nose (versus mouth breathing) as much as possible but there is no evidence to support the contention of a performance benefit via delivery of nitric oxide to the exercising muscle.

The cells lining the paranasal sinuses do produce NO (thought to check the growth of bacteria and minimize the risks of sinusitis or infection of the sinus cavities). But the same is not true of the nasal lining cells.

The paranasal sinus cavities are not in the direct stream of air being delivered to the lungs through the nasal passages, and for that reason I doubt suspect any NO delivered to the blood stream is I doubt they provide a physiologically significant amount of NO to the exercising muscle. Nose (versus mouth) breathing is better for the health reasons listed above, so it is something to work on while exercising. But if you want the benefit of nitric oxide for your workout or ride, some beet juice in the AM may be more effective.


A recent report indicated that lung function tests of endurance athletes during "ultra" marathon sports events has indicated a progressive decrease in lung volume and expiration rates of between 5% and 20% ,commonly indicative of asthma related disease. These results were noted in various sports events including canoeing, running, skiing and cycling. It was postulated that these athletes exhibited symptoms of exercise induced asthma. Does exercise cause spasm in the lung airways in all athletes, not just asthmatics??

There is some evidence that endurance athletes may become sensitized to allergens (proteins that can bring on an asthma attack) and other environmental toxins the longer they are involved in their sport. This may be why such a high percentage of elite athletes are on medications for "exercise induced asthma".

But with exercise induced asthma (which is the same as any other asthma), vital capacity diminishes with even a few minutes of beginning easy exercise. In ultra endurance athletes, there is most likely another factor (something that would occur in everyone such as fatigue or dehydration) causing lower lung volumes and muscular efficiency that slowly evolves as exercise continues. This still to be identified factor,not asthma, reduces vital capacity if the event was long enough and becomes the most logical reason why such a high percentage would show reduced lung capacity.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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