Can we train our breathing muscles to improve team sports performance?

The Introduction

Over the last few years there is an increasing number of ‘breathing training’ devices hitting the market suggesting they can enhance the performance of athletes. Sure there is research evidence that has shown in people with lung disease that respiratory muscle strength, power and endurance can be improved and that these improvements in breathing capacity can enhance their ability to walk faster or longer, but what effect might respiratory muscle training have on sports performance?

To date, the results of studies looking at respiratory muscle training and performance have focused mainly on continuous exercise. Some researchers have shown no improvement in endurance performance but others have shown performance improvements in fixed-work rate cycling tests and improved time trial performance in rowing and cycling. But what about team sports?

The Research

breathingA recent American study examined the effect of respiratory muscle training (RMT) on intermittent exercise performance, respiratory muscle strength, respiratory muscle fatigue, and shortness of breath in 27 young collegiate-level soccer players broken into two groups. One group acted as a control group and did no RMT while the RMT group did RMT training twice daily, 5 days per week, for 5 weeks. They did 30 hard inhalations using a commercially-available training device (Powerlung). Sports performance was evaluated a widely-used soccer test called the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test (IRT) and shortness of breath was assessed during and immediately following this test.

The Results

Following the respiratory muscle training, the RMT group significantly increased their sports performance while the control group didn’t.  The inspiratory power of the RMT group also increased dramatically with no significant change observed in the controls.

The So What?

During hard endurance exercise, about 15% of the blood that is pumped from the heart goes to the breathing muscles (diaphragm, muscles between the ribs and the muscles that lift the chest up). Thus, if we can train the breathing muscles to be stronger, it may lead to less blood having to be pumped to the breathing muscles and thus more blood available to the muscles we are using to exercise. These results suggest that inspiratory muscle training may help team sport players of any age. While a possible dark cloud hangs over this research by the fact it was sponsored by the manufacturers of Powerlung, the research looks very robust and has been peer-reviewed and published in one of the most prestigious journals in the field of sports science. Thus, it appears that masters athletes looking for an edge might want to look into these devices. For those vets with lung problems, it might be suggested you get along to your family doctor to chat to them about your plans.

Photo from: pikimota 

Nicks, C., Morgan, D., Fuller, D., Caputo, J. (2009). The Influence of Respiratory Muscle Training Upon Intermittent Exercise Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 30: 16-21.