Heavy breathing helps cyclists beat the clock

Practicing rapid deep breathing could help cyclists smash their personal bests. An article published this week in BMC Physiology shows how experienced cyclists can shave minutes off their race times by regularly putting their respiratory muscles through endurance training.

The researchers, from University of Arizona, who carried out the study write: “We are unaware of other training methods that result in similar performance increments in experienced bicycle racers.”

Twenty highly trained cyclists and/or triathletes agreed to participate in the study. All the volunteers had been engaged in hard cycling exercise for at least three hours a week for the eight weeks prior to the trial, and none of them had ever suffered from a respiratory illness.

At the start of the study the cyclists performed a time trial. They were asked to complete a fixed quantity of work – that equated to a bike ride of around 45 minutes – in the shortest time possible.

Ten of the volunteers were then put on a programme of respiratory muscle exercise, which involved regular 30-minute stints of rapid deep breathing. During these sessions the research team of Paige Holm, Angela Sattler and, Ralph Fregosi, monitored the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the cyclists lungs.

“We added CO2 to the breathing gas to prevent the levels from falling,” explains Fregosi. “If this is not done, the lung and blood CO2 stores decline rapidly during the increased breathing efforts, and the athlete becomes dizzy and is likely to faint.”

Over the course of the four-week programme the cyclists gradually increased the rhythm of their breathing during their training sessions, with the help of a metronome. The cyclists also increased the depth of each breath until their breaths reached a maximum depth after the tenth session.

The remaining volunteers either carried out sham training – 20 five-minute sessions of fast heavy breathing that remained at a constant rate and depth over the course of the training – or did no respiratory training at all. All the cyclists maintained their normal fitness regime during the study period.

After the training period the athletes repeated the time trial. Nine of the ten cyclists that underwent respiratory muscle endurance training beat their previous time. The average performance time fell from 47.1 minutes before the training to 44.9 minutes after training. No improvements were seen in the sham training or control groups.

“The almost 5% improvement in cycling performance in the trained subjects is remarkable considering that they were fit and already close to the limit of their performance potential,” write the researchers.

The way that the respiratory muscle endurance training worked to enhance the athletes’ performances is currently unknown, but the researchers suggest that the trained cyclists may be able to exercise more intensely before they suffer severe shortness of breath.

“Whether or not more extended or more intense respiratory muscle training would lead to even larger improvements in exercise performance is uncertain, but the results of this study suggest that this should be addressed,” write the authors of the study.

Fregosi advises that, “This type of respiratory muscle training is difficult to do at home because the subject would be unable to control their lung CO2 levels, possibly leading to complications. Although there are commercially available respiratory muscle training devices, these are based on resistance breathing such that the effort required to take a breath is increased. But whether or not these devices enhance cycling time trial performance under well-controlled conditions has yet to be established.”

This press release is based on the following article:

Endurance training of respiratory muscles improves cycling performance in fit young cyclists
Paige Holm, Angela Sattler and Ralph F Fregosi
BMC Physiology 2004, 4:9

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