Breathing For Optimal Performance by evan peikon

Recently I wrote an article titled, The Blind Men and the Elephant, whose purpose was to open up dialogue and give insight into what we’ve been exploring at Training Think Tank HQ.

This article will be the second, of a four part series, where I continue to shine light on our current paradigm and how our classical ideas about bioenergetics are, well, misguided to say the least. If you’ve yet to check out the aforementioned article I recommend you do so prior to continuing as this piece will be a bit more technical in nature and will build of previously discussed concepts.

As coaches we are reductionists - we tend to look at an athlete's ‘capacity’ in the most simplistic of ways. Someone is either ‘enduring’ or they are ‘powerful. This isn’t to put a negative connotation on simplicity, as we want to make information as actionable as possible, but oversimplifying complexity, and trying to create ‘cookbooks’, isn’t the answer either. When we view biological systems through a reductionist lens we fail to see the whole picture and nuance is lost. Naturally, this leads us to believe that ‘education’ is the antidote to this issue, but oftentimes textbook education simply produces illusory confidence.

For example, from a textbook perspective it would appear that there are two major trainable systems that interact to determine an athlete’s ability to express their ‘capacity’. There is the local aerobic capacity of the working skeletal muscle tissue and the capacity of the oxygen delivery system (cardiovascular/ cardiopulmonary). However, it’s not so simple….

An athlete's physiological limitation reveals itself at the lactate balance point, which we obtain through testing as discussed in “The Blind Men and The Elephant”. When their limiter is revealed (cardiac, respiratory, muscular, blood transport) another system will compensate to keep the body moving. At that point we get a unique perspective - what system functions as the limiter and compensator; and what system acts as the maintainer, or the strongest, most resilient, system in that individual.

In this article i’m going to discuss the intricacies of the respiratory system, then in the following article i’ll cover the ‘delivery’ system, before tying everything together in the fourth, and final, installment of this series.

To start, we have a scenario in which ‘utilization’ is exhausted, or in other words all of the oxygen available in the muscle has been used and we are at or near o% SmO2 (oxygen saturation) in the muscle. When this occurs we get an increase in H+ (hydrogen ions), and consequently Co2 due to the bicarbonate buffer system (H^+ + HCO3 <-> H2O + CO2 ). This increase in H+ also shifts the oxygen dissociation curve right, and as a result respiration increases and we hyperventilate as a means of blowing off excess Co2.

This sustained hyperventilation creates a high energetic and circulatory demand, consequently leading to diaphragm muscle fatigue and a respiratory metaboreflex. Since the respiratory muscles get oxygen preferentially over the extremity muscles this metaboreflex leads to locomotor muscle vasoconstriction, which decreases the amount of blood, and consequently oxygen, available in the muscles. Thus resulting in locomotor muscle fatigue, increased effort, and eventually a drop in performance.

In these instances where the respiratory system poses a limitation, we can address this issue through means which keep the heart rate down and allow us to stress the respiratory system without the integration of locomotor muscles. There are a small handful of devices out there that allow you to do this, but one which we discuss in length in our upcoming movement course is the spirotiger. The idea behind this device, and similar devices, is to train the strength and endurance of the lungs and respiratory muscles, diaphragm, breathing co-ordination, and the intra abdominal muscles involved during breathing. By doing so we can reduce, or slow down, the effect of the respiratory metaboreflex, consequently improving performance.

Whereas the respiratory system limitation described above was due to a lack of strength, and endurance, in the respiratory muscles a limitation in this system can also be caused by dysfunctional breathing mechanics. This is a complex topic, which we dedicate an entire section to in the TTT Movement Systems course, so for the sake of brevity i’m going to cover three of the more common scenarios and their implications.

1. Without optimal thoracic and pelvic positions the diaphragm cannot function optimally. Period. Athletes with these issue often manifest as being stuck in thoracic extension, overly stressed, and high systemic muscle tension. In other words their movement quality is compromised. Additionally, these improper breathing mechanics, and lack of respiratory muscle development, increase intra-abdominal pressure, thus creating an ‘anaerobic’ response to aerobic training and further shifting their nervous system into a stressed, sympathetic dominant, state.

2. While not mutually exclusive with point one above, another dysfunction I see often during Moxy assessment occurs when athletes try to control their respiration too much and do not fully expire with each breath. This is know an hypoventilation. When this occurs we get a buildup of CO2, which is a vasodilator, and as a result total hemoglobin in the muscles begins to increase rapidly during rest (when it should decreases due to the fact that the heart no longer needs to deliver oxygen rich blood). Additionally, this increase in CO2 creates a ‘right shift’ in the oxygen dissociation curve causing hemoglobin to ‘release’ oxygen to readily (due to a decreased affinity for O2), resulting in a more rapid desaturation in the muscle.

3. Whereas point number two dealt with hypoventilation, this one will deal with hyperventilation, specifically when this strategy is unneeded. Despite what your high school wrestling coach told you, breathing rapidly or hyperventilating, is not a sign of weakness. When we fatigue, we hyperventilate as a means of blowing off excess CO2. Typically when this occurs we try to fight it, or go into panic breathing mode. While unpleasant, doing so is actually an optimal breathing strategy so long as we continue to inhale/ exhale fully during this process. Where we run into issues is when an athlete hyperventilates early in a workout unnecessarily. In these instances we end up breathing off too much CO2, as as a result we get vasoconstriction, which inhibits our ability to get blood into the muscles. Additionally, this lack of CO2 creates a left shift in the oxygen dissociation curve, consequently inhibiting hemoglobins ability to ‘let go of’ oxygen and offload it into the mitochondria. In essence were starving our muscles of what they need to function, and as a result performance stalls out.

As a coach, athlete, and scientist at heart the advent of new technologies in the ‘sport science’ realm are certainly creating exciting times. More often than not these technologies aren’t simply advancing our knowledge or furthering our understanding of topics like bioenergetics, biological systems theory, and so forth. Instead, they’re forcing us to take three steps back; and take a completely different route moving forward. There are still so many questions left to be answered, and it appears that we don’t even have all of the puzzle pieces required to put the thing together - no one does. Until then we’re going to keep searching, refining our models, and sharing this information through blog posts, upcoming courses, and athlete camps. Breathing For Optimal Performance I implore everyone to do the same and to not settle once the skies clear and you finally get the peace of mind that comes with understanding ‘it’.

~ Evan

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Evan Peikon
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