A medical colleague of mine likes to say, “Breathing always wins”. No matter an individual’s physical endurance level or functional capacity, they fundamentally need a way to breathe. Under periods of physical exertion, the body will find ways to maximize oxygen intake through breathing and in doing so sometimes even compromises other systemic or structural functions. Envision the long-distance runner after their race, standing bent forward with their chest visibly heaving. The runner’s back or arms are not tired but bending forward helps the diaphragm to work more efficiently at a time when they need more oxygen consumption. They compensate posture so that breathing wins.
If breathing is so important, why has it been relatively overlooked in the emergence of wearable technology when we can so easily monitor respiratory rate? Perhaps a deeper understanding of the importance of respiratory rate and recognition of how respiratory data can provide insightful information to enhance performance and function is needed.
When an individual exercises or exerts themselves they eventually get to a point where the level of exertion requires an increase in oxygen uptake to continue the activity. At this point they begin breathing more frequently and/or with greater depth to meet the needs of physical exertion. Ventilatory threshold (VT) is the point after which ventilation begins to increase disproportionately relative to oxygen uptake. This point is often considered a submaximal point for optimal moderate exercise prescription. If a wearable sensor were able to reliably track respiratory rate, and validly identify changes in respiratory rate over time during activity, it is conceivable that VT can be predicted.
Understanding the Ventilatory Threshold also coincides with the point at which lactate threshold (LT) increases. LT provides insight on the level of intensity needed in a training session to improve aerobic performance. LT is helpful for athletes to understand how to avoid overtraining and muscle damage associated excessive training. Knowing this information enables a precision approach to tracking and monitoring athletic performance.
Breathing is a function that can be trained. Strategies that encourage deep, slow, paced breathing help to control respiratory rate changes during activities and are beneficial to extend the duration of an activity prior to reaching VT thereby maximizing the conditioning effect. While important for improving athletic performance, controlling and monitoring respiratory rate can also have significant implications for anyone along the functional spectrum, from the disabled and severely deconditioned, to the individual exercising for health maintenance purposes.
Breathing strategies using real-time monitoring can help an individual maximize time to reach VT which optimizes training and endurance and mitigates stress response on the body. In deconditioned and compromised populations this may be a critical physiological pathway to optimizing weight loss, increasing lean muscle mass, and reconditioning endurance. This has relevance to chronic conditions like obesity, sarcopenia, diabetes, cancer treatment-related muscle wasting syndromes, severe fatigue and deconditioning and more. Furthermore, the use of respiratory rate to predict VT allows customization of any exercise program and promotes optimal performance for achieving conditioning and improving health.
Nicole Stout, DPT, CLT-LANA is Vice President of Medical Affairs at Zansors. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @NicoleStoutPT