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The Science Behind Breathing

Posted on 16/10/2020

About the Author: Stuart Dicke is a coach at The Human Movement Coach and is an Oxygen Advantage certified instructor. As a self-proclaimed action sport junkie he partakes in free-diving, big wave surfing and trail running. A lifelong human movement intern!

Breathing techniques to scientifically enhance performance.

There is a large misconception that the urge to breathe is because we aren’t taking in enough oxygen but this is absolutely false. People commonly actually over-breathe (hyperventilation). 

We get our urge to breathe because our bodies have a build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2).  It has often been thought that CO2 is a waste gas, kind of like urine. But again this is false, it is an essential gas for human bodies.  Not only is it the body’s primary stimulus to breathe but it is also responsible for stimulating your haemoglobin (the part of blood that carries oxygen) to deliver oxygen to your muscles.  

The Bus and Passengers

Think of it like this – your haemoglobin is the bus and it carries the passengers, oxygen, to your muscles.  When it gets to your muscles the conductor says “show me your ticket.”  The ticket is CO2. If the muscle hasn’t worked hard enough and doesn’t have enough CO2, the haemoglobin will hold onto the oxygen and not deliver it to the muscle.  

Not a new Concept

Breathing correctly is not a new concept, I have often heard it referred to as the forgotten art.  In 1904, Christian Bohr, a Danish biochemist discovered that “the lower the partial pressure of carbon dioxide in the blood the greater the affinity of haemoglobin for the oxygen it carries”. To put it simply, the lower the pressure of CO2 in blood, the less oxygen is released by haemoglobin into cells for the production of energy. Conversely, an increase of CO2 in blood, causes a drop in blood PH, resulting in haemoglobin releasing their oxygen load.  This process was named the Bohr effect.

To tie the above concepts together: 

  1. As you exercise, you increase levels of CO2 in the blood. Your lungs can’t get rid of CO2 fast enough and so your brain receives the stimulus to breathe faster (think of your very first memory of running fast, red faced and breathless).
  2. As you start to breathe faster more air travels through your lungs than you can absorb. This then starts to blow off (get rid of) the CO2, which then has the negative effect described above. 
  3. Not only does breathing harder blow off CO2 but the act of breathing (especially hard and fast) adds work load to your body, creating the need for more oxygen and increasing CO2 further. 
  4. A lower tolerance to CO2, the earlier in exercise your breathing rate will increase. This makes it more likely that you will blow off your CO2, resulting in less delivery of oxygen to the muscles. The consequence of this is in an inability to produce energy and an increase in muscle fatigue.

Using this Response to Great Effect

Our goal is to train our bodies to tolerate CO2. This means you can maintain a more efficient breath for longer as your CO2 levels increase.  

You also get the added benefit of more efficient delivery of oxygen to your muscles, which in turn delays the onset of lactic acid and fatigue.  You will also waste less energy on poor breathing technique (see article to come on good breathing technique) and waste less energy on the overuse of supporting breathing muscles.

With the right training and instruction we can use this mechanism and breathing techniques to enhance your training. 

Spending more time being exposed to higher levels of CO2 can not only allow you become more tolerant to CO2 (delaying the onset of heavy breathing) but also delay fatigue.  Fatigue is not just a feeling, it is a physiological occurrence where the body reaches a breaking point at which it cannot continue to exercise at that intensity.  This results in the athlete having to slow down their intensity or cease performance altogether. 

Continued exposure to higher levels of CO2 during training forces the body to make adaptations, thereby delaying the onset of fatigue. Which of course then increases your performance. 

Up and coming narrative

It’s amazing how long it is still taking for this science to enter the mainstream narrative. It is still far from widely understood and embraced in the running world. Athletes who are willing engage with the science and learn specialised breathing techniques will be have a secret weapon in their toolbox when it comes to enhanced performance. 

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