This article covers legal methods of improving your breathing and lung function.
Breathing… something we do about 15 times per minute (12-18 is a normal range). That’s over 22,000 per day. It happens automatically. Breathing is regulated by our sympathetic nerves. Our breathing rate is a response to a bodily need.
Lungs work pretty simply. Your lungs do not have muscles. You breathe by changing the size of your chest. The air around you has pressure. It is pushing in on you all of the time. When you make your chest bigger, air comes into your body and fills up your lungs. To breathe out, you make your chest smaller. This pushes the air back out.
Oxygen is about 20-21% of the air we breathe. Exhaled air contains about 15-16% oxygen. Here’s the kicker, that doesn’t change for an athlete. Lungs do not “get in shape” or respond to exercise by increasing the extraction of oxygen from the air. We use 5% of the oxygen (air) we breathe (25% of the incoming oxygen).
So, it begs the question what happens if we breathe 100% oxygen? It’s not a simple answer. Part of the answer depends on the air pressure at which you are breathing. Under normal pressure a plethora of problems have been documented from more prolonged use (24-30 hours): Pulmonary edema; Decreases in the rate of gas exchange across the alveoli; Chest pains that were worse during deep breathing; Decrease in the total volume of exchangeable air in the lung by 17 percent; Local areas of collapsed alveoli; and blindness (premature infants). Not good stuff!
Reducing the air pressure, as they do with astronauts can eliminate these side effects. Increasing the air pressure however can induce an acute oxygen poisoning with the following symptoms: nausea, dizziness, muscles twitches, blurred vision, seizures/convulsions.
I have read conflicting information about “taking” oxygen on the sidelines during a competition (like we see in football). So, I cannot address the efficacy of the short term use as an ergogenic (performance enhancing) or recovery aid. More research is needed because results have been contrary. Similarly, hypoxic tents in which you sleep with lower oxygen levels to simulate high altitude do not have research support for their use. Logic says that they might work but research hasn’t yet been definitive on this issue yet. So, hold off on spending thousands of dollars on a tent, ok?
Ok, so I hope you will all agree for our purposes the just mentioned methods for the most part aren’t a practical answer for most of us. What is practical is conditioning yourself (running) to increase vascularization of your lungs and improving/strenthening the muscles that are involved in breathing (remember, lungs don’t have muscles).
- First, be sure you breathe naturally. There is a plethora of ideas, suggestions and philosophies (i.e. yoga) on breathing. You are a runner. Your lungs respond to the amount of oxygen your body is demanding. So, breathe!
- Do not arbitrarily try to slow your breathing down (or speed it up for that matter). You need to supply your lungs with as much oxygen as possible.
- Breathe through your mouth. Why on earth would you limit it by breathing through a small oriface (i.e. nose)? True, if you breath through your nose it might warm the air more on the coldest of days (it’s been shown however that it is adequately warmed by the time it reaches your lungs regardless). True, if you have exercise induced asthma it helps partially filter the air (a primary purpose for your nose) before it enters your lungs. My advice is to take your medications/inhalers as instructed and breath through your mouth. I know there are breathing methods for asthmatics that differ from this advice. I do have exercise induced asthma. I have tried them. They don’t work for me. (This is non-scientific. I’m just telling you my experience as an athlete and asthmatic perspective.)
- Belly breathe. The easiest test to see if you belly-breathe is to lay down, put a book on your stomach, take a deep breath. If the book rises with your chest as you inhale, you are belly breathing. Chest out… stomach out. If the book sinks as your chest rises, you are not belly breathing. This is one cause of side cramps.
- Exercise those breathing muscles. Hospitals have patients with respiratory problems do breathing exercises. There is even a nifty device that has been researched with athletes and the research supports it’s efficacy in strengthening those breathing muscles. The device is called PowerBreathe. I have tried this thing out. I can vouch for the workout it gives you. I have not used it systematically enough to personally vouch for any benefits for me yet. But, a couple of independent research studies have!
- Do not arbitrarily “pace” your breathing (i.e. inhale, three steps, exhale). This again artificially restrains a natural response to effort. You may “find” that there is indeed a pattern to your breathing at certain paces. That is different than “creating” a pattern. And if you do find a pattern, understand that on certain days it might not work, so don’t force it.
Finally, breathing does naturally tend to have a drying effect on respiratory surfaces. Along with pollens, molds, pollution, etc. this is another reason exercise induced asthma occurs. But, I’ll save that topic for another day.