[Harrison Yi received his bachelor’s degree in Business Management with a focus on entrepreneurship from Texas Tech University. Harrison is currently a part of Athletic Lab’s coaching mentorship program.]
The importance of inspiratory and expiratory muscle training has long been an area of focus in healthcare and general wellness in the public. Most commonly seen in different types of meditation, yoga, and movement and mobility training, focused and purposeful breathing has been shown to have therapeutic, stress reducing effects. These days, it is common for competitive athletes to implement some sort of dedicated breath training on low intensity or rest days. More sport specific training sessions by nature will also work breath training that is related to the sport. Powerlifting, for example, has a breathing/bracing component to the sport that is a skill that the athletes work on most training sessions. Breathing patterns will be different when comparing ballistic movements (e.g. sprinting) to slower rates of force development (e.g. long distance running). Breaking this down even further: athletes playing different positions in the same sport will have different respiratory patterns. In American football, a quarterback, kicker, and running back will cover wide-ranging respiratory inputs and outputs. Main points of discussion will be sport-specific considerations and respiratory patterns along with inspiratory warm-ups, training, and diaphragmatic breathing.
Sport-Specific Influences on Breathing
One study looking at the respiratory differences in the sports of basketball, handball, soccer, and water polo set out to find if any anthropometric/demographic qualities correspond with lung capacity and function.1 The cross-sectional study tested 150 male athletes that played at an elite (national/international) level of their sport for at least 15 hours a week. Anthropometric evaluations measured height, weight, body fat percentage, and ultimately, BMI. The criterion included fasting and refraining from exercise 3 hours prior to being assessed. Spirometry would look at lung capacity and function. Spirometry is widely regarded as the most accurate pulmonary function test determining how much and how quickly air is inhaled and exhaled.
Unsurprisingly, all four groups of athletes had substantially higher spirometric results when compared to the general population (predicted values used) which simply confirms that athletes have greater cardiorespiratory fitness levels than your “average joe” who’s physical activity is much lower. The study did attempt to use sports that were similar in terms of type and intensity of activity. The most relevant finding was that the water polo athletes showed to have higher spirometric results than the land-based sport athletes. Water polo athletes had a spirometric value that was about 16% higher than the predicted values. This indicates that the largest factor in this finding is that the athletes participate in a water-based sport. Water immersion provides a constant pressure on the respiratory system that many other sports cannot mimic while training. However, further investigation is needed to determine if their superior lung function is due to the type of training or genetic factors.
Inspiratory Warm Ups and Muscle Training
A study by Dr. Mitch Lomax at the University of Portsmouth tested 12 semi-pro soccer players in the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test over a span of 6 weeks.2 Inspiratory warm-ups and training involved using a respiratory muscle trainer. Warm-ups included 2 x 30 breaths immediately before the Yo-Yo test, and inspiratory muscle training consisted of 1 x 30 breaths twice a day. Results showed that inspiratory warm-ups and muscle training increased distance covered in the test. Those who did inspiratory warm-ups alone increased distance covered by ~5-7%, only inspiratory muscle training increased distance covered by ~12%. The largest increase at ~15% is seen when both warm ups and muscle training are combined.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Exercise-Induced Oxidative Stress
“Deep breath in, slowly breathe out” is a common thing we are told when physically and mentally stressed. Diaphragmatic breathing is foundational in different forms of meditation. Studies on oxidative stress levels show a correlation between meditation and lower oxidative stress levels, lower cortisol levels and higher melatonin levels. In a 2009 study, 16 amateur male cyclists were monitored during an 8 hour cycling session where the athletes were training for a 24 hour long competition.3 After the training session, half of the athletes spent 1 hour in a quiet place performing diaphragmatic breathing and focusing on their breath. The other 8 athletes also spent an hour in a quiet place simply sitting there quietly. Results showed that the relaxation induced by diaphragmatic breathing after extensive training appears to lower oxidative stress levels as evidenced by an increase in the antioxidant defense status, increase in melatonin, and decrease in cortisol. Further research is needed to determine the long-term benefits of routine diaphragmatic breathing in protecting athletes from oxidative stress.
After the foundational “meat and potatoes” training, it seems as though respiratory muscle training would be a good option to look at when deciding what accessory work to include pre and post training sessions. Breathing exercises are easy to teach and time efficient. It is a simple add-on to training plans that does not require additional setup or equipment. Respiratory muscle training tends to be a component of strength and conditioning that gets overlooked and understandably so, it is not very flashy. However, research suggests that significant improvements in athletic performance can be made by implementing planned out breathing sessions.
- Durmic T, Lazovic B, Djelic M, et al. Sport-specific influences on respiratory patterns in elite athletes. J Bras Pneumol. 2015;41(6):516-522.
- Lomax M, Grant I, Corbett J. Inspiratory muscle warm-up and inspiratory muscle training: separate and combined effects on intermittent running to exhaustion. J Sports Sci. 2011;29(6):563-569.
- Martarelli D, Cocchioni M, Scuri S, Pompei P. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2011;2011:932430.