Revolutions in training methodologies don’t come by very often but I may have temporarily taken my eye off one: back in late 2007 I decided to leave nothing to chance and optimise every part of my life and training. As part of this I purchased the PowerBreathe Sport series, then the second iteration of inspiratory muscle trainers released by the market leader.
Exercise physiology has been slow to pick up on the effect of inspiratory muscle fatigue on overall performance and while I had tremendously successful results during my first period of training with the PowerBreathe Sports, I forgot it along with all the other radical solutions that shaped my 2008 success (my only spike in training occurred from post-2007 to 2008, since then it flatlined, see the graphs at the end of this post for the evidence. Imprint the image on your retina for that is the fate of any athlete who forgets the root of their success and for any athlete who is consistently injured.)
This aside, I have recently returned to those positive habits and while I stupidly lost my previous PowerBreathe I am now a very proud owner of the new PowerBreathe Kinetic 3 the “world’s 1st intelligent digital breathing trainer”. But before we look at this amazing new gadget let’s look at why you’d spend time doing anything as stupid as breathing through what looks like a mixture between a Star-Trek tricorder and an asthma-device.
With my material writing duties for ChampionsEverywhere being a high priority I currently plough through more material than ever, as I type this there is a tower of books, more than a metre high next to me, including both ground-breaking new literature such as “The Athlete’s Clock” and old classical training books such as Ron Daw’s “Running your Best” (the best Lydiard training book not written by the man himself).
Part of this tower is made up of “Breathe Strong", Perform Better” a seminal work on the importance of training the respiratory muscles written by Alison McConnell, PhD, who spent 20 years researching this field and may well one day be remembered as the founder of Breathing Muscle Training. I first began taking a new interest in this after conversations with Stephen Cleary, one of the Irish athletes at Snowdon. Stephen is an exercise physiologist and currently studies the effect of different breathing techniques on exercise performance and their studies have uncovered some interesting results.
Why breathing wasn’t thought to be important
Historically inspiratory muscles were not believed to be very important in exercise because even at maximal exercise your blood is usually 100% oxygenated (meaning your bloodstream cannot absorb more air even if you breathed harder). While this sounds strange because you feel “out of breath” this feeling actually comes from the fact that your body’s capillary system is not sufficiently developed to supply your working muscles with the oxygen they need. Essentially: it’s like having plenty of goods in the storage central but too small a fleet of trucks to get the goods out to the shops, or in short – because breathing doesn’t increase oxygen delivery to the muscles it cannot be a limiting factor in performance.
With this logic, it shouldn’t matter whether you maximise your breathing because breathing stronger would not help you. Only improving your capillary system will. While it is still true that maximising your capillary system through aerobic exercise contributes probably more than any other factor to performance in endurance sports, the breathing muscles have proven more important than first thought but for different reasons than originally assumed.
The truth of breathing
In running it has been measured that the breathing muscles fatigue by about 15% during exercise (compared to 20% for cycling, 22% for rowing and 28% for swimming). This fatigue should not matter because of the argument we just made above but it does and science has proven it comprehensively in recent years doing simple studies that showed that if you pre-fatigued breathing muscles athletes performed worse than normal in subsequent tests.
The breathing muscles perform two functions: one is breathing air in and out the other is to act as stabilisers of the trunk, these muscles include essentially all of the muscles attaching to the rib cage. These provide core stability and postural control when not fatigued. Allison McConnell compares this to a situation where your leg muscles were both responsible for movement and for pumping blood around your body. What is being asked of the breathing muscles is not much different.
Because the breathing muscles are critical, they demand more blood once they get fatigued. This part of the bloodflow increases with fatigue, pulling more and more resources away from your poor legs. That you are losing core stability and control at the same time only further exacerbates this problem as your movements become ever less energy-efficient (your running economy essentially starts to drop).
So enter “Inspiratory Muscle Training” (IMT) the new term for overload training designed to mimic “weigh-lifting” for your breathing muscles. Like any other muscle if you train it like this, it gains in strength and fatigues slower and the whole negative cycle described above is delayed. An impressive array of studies are presented in “Breathe Strong, Perform Better” and consistently show very impressive gains. Looking at some studies the effects of 3 hours of IMT were at least as good as those created by 5 hours of interval training. In general, the majority of studies suggested improvements of between 1.9 and 4.6% for endurance tests from 6 to 60 minutes. This resulted from generally 4-6 weeks of training.
The new Kinetica essentially does what the old PowerBreathe does letting you breath in and out against resistance. Sessions are generally 5 minutes of 30 reps morning and evening. Later you supplement this by doing actual exercises while breathing through the PowerBreathe to train your body to breathe deeply and effectively while conducting sports specific movements.
The best feature of the new PowerBreathe comes from the digital screen that automatically resets your training level to your ability and provides data on your performance such as load (the resistance to inhalation, essentially the “weight lifted”), power (in Watts), and volume (average amount of air inhaled per breath) in litres. The latter is particularly interesting for endurance athletes as it helps tell you something about your potential VO2 max.
In my recent tests I have managed to breathe in 4.3-4.5 litres/min but while this is higher than the average of 3.5 litres/min, I have expected it to be higher based on the 2008 tests. Today I used the PowerBreathe in “Test mode” to gauge my volume and managed a breath of 5.6litres/min and I am sure technique and training will improve this further.
This is important because if I can learn to reach intensities were I can utilise all the oxygen of this volume my VO2max would increase from the current tested 56-62 to 81. I need to pick up on this challenge, the lungs and the oxygen is there. I have to create the ability to use it and to bring it to the muscles. Otherwise I will remain a huge engine strapped in on an insufficient chassis.
I believe I have made a good purchase as this tool definitely allows you to do the best type of IMT and provides all the feedback needed to keep motivated. At the same time it’s use for coaches and healthcare practitioners to evaluate the lung capacity of their athletes gives them insight they previously needed a laboratory for. Too early to judge the product in its entirety but one day it may be seen as an essential supplement to gain those extra percent of performance we are all looking for.
As mentioned, the proof of my performance plateau since injuries set in and radical habits were abandoned in the period 2009 to 2011:
The period post-2007 to 2008 (2008 would have shown further improvement if I had raced more in the roads, but I only raced in the mountains):