Can You Train Your Lungs and Breathing Muscles to Get Stronger and Will this Actually Help You Run Faster
It’s hard to imagine something as fundamental to running as breathing. You really can’t go without it! But as simple as breathing is, there are still a lot of questions about how it actually affects your running.
Can getting better at breathing—with stronger lungs and breathing muscles—actually make you a better runner?
How much does your ability to breathe to the fullest extent possible actually impact your performance?
These issues have obvious implications on training and racing; there are even companies which advertise respiration-muscle training devices to strengthen the muscles that help you inhale and exhale.
To get to the bottom of all this, we’ll have to take a look at some of the research that’s been done on respiration, ventilation muscles, and running.
Respiratory muscle fatigue and performance
Your actual inhalation and exhalation during running is controlled by your respiratory muscles: primarily your diaphragm, the sheet-like muscle that lies just below your lungs, but also some of the muscles surrounding the inside of your ribcage. Like any other muscle in the body, these should become stronger with training.
Whether specific training can strengthen these muscles isn’t our real concern, however; it’s whether it is beneficial to strengthen them to improve performance. In other words, are these muscles a rate-limiting factor in an endurance sport like running?
Answering that should be reasonably straightforward with a well-designed study. If the respiratory muscles become fatigued after intense exercise, it’s possible that strengthening them could lead to increased performance. A few studies have examined respiratory muscle fatigue following exercise, with mixed results.
Maximum voluntary ventilation and VO2 max test
A small study in 1982 measured several factors related to respiratory muscle strength in four runners before and after completing a marathon at about 7:50 mile pace. The authors noted decreases in the runners’ ability to exert pressure while breathing in and out, as well as decreases in their maximum voluntary ventilation, a metric which examines the maximum amount of air you can move in and out of your lungs in one minute.
Another study, published in 1993 by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, conducted a similar experiment on 12 people, ranging from modestly fit recreational athletes to extremely well-conditioned runners. They too found that the respiratory muscles could become fatigued after a hard effort (this time, a VO2 max test on a treadmill to exhaustion). These results seem to indicate that respiratory fatigue is indeed a real phenomenon after a hard effort.
Inducing respiratory fatigue through hard effort
However, other research has not been able to induce respiratory muscle fatigue, even after exercise of similar difficulty. Nava et al. published a study in 1992 which found no evidence of respiratory muscle fatigue in six well-trained runners who completed a 10.5-mile time trial at an all-out effort, and a 1999 study out of the University of Zurich in Switzerland was only able to detect respiratory fatigue after a hard cycling test when the subjects had to breathe against mechanical resistance—something that doesn’t happen in the real world.
So it is still unclear to what extent, if any, a well-trained runner will experience respiratory muscle fatigue during or after a hard effort. Nava et al. speculate that fatigue of the respiratory muscles might only be observed in less-trained athletes.
Respiratory muscle strength and performance
Indeed, other research has shown that running training itself will increase respiratory muscle strength, including many of the ventilation-related variables measured in the studies above. But the question still remains as to whether independently strengthening the respiratory muscles with specific training will have any impact on performance.
Using muscle training device
Fortunately, this very topic was addressed in a 2000 paper published by Omri Inbar and others at the Wingate Institute in Israel. Twenty well-trained runners, all of whom had competed nationally in track events, were split into two groups. The first received a specialized respiratory muscle training device, which was fitted over the mouth and provided adjustable resistance to inhalation.
Under the supervision of a physiotherapist, the subjects used it to strengthen their respiratory muscles six times per week in thirty-minute sessions during the ten-week study. The control group received the same device, but it was modified to provide no resistance during breathing, functioning as a “sham treatment.” At the conclusion of the study, the subjects underwent another session of exercise testing, just as they had done at the outset.
While the strength of their respiratory muscles did increase when the runners in the experimental group were breathing against resistance, this did not translate into a higher VO2 max, aerobic capacity, or amount of oxygen transported into the blood via the lungs when compared to the control group.
So, while specific training for the muscles which control inhalation and exhalation during running does strengthen them, it doesn’t seem to have an effect on your actual performance while running.
This is likely because access to oxygen in the lungs isn’t usually a limiting factor in endurance athletes—by the time your blood leaves your lungs, it is already fully saturated with oxygen from the air. This is also why accessories which claim to increase airflow to your lungs (like Breathe Right strips) won’ t help your performance either.
It appears that there is no need to worry about specific strength training for your breathing muscles, since running training by itself will strengthen your lungs, and because of the questionable existence of respiratory muscle fatigue after hard efforts, especially in well-trained runners, the strength of your lungs shouldn’t be something that will hold you back in training or in racing.
Two notable exceptions do exist, however: exercise-induced asthma and altitude. During an asthma attack, your airways become so restricted that your blood can’t get enough oxygen, hindering performance. Likewise, at altitudes above about 3200′, the air pressure is too low to allow your blood to fully saturate with oxygen. Of course, the muscles that you use to breathe aren’t the root of the problem in either of these cases!
Fortunately, breathing is something you can mostly forget about when you run. There’s no evidence that you need to pay special attention to your breathing muscles when you are training, which is good given the multitude of other things you have to worry about.
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