Preview: Training The Respiratory Limited Athelte

This article is a companion piece to my previous article titled, Training The Delivery Limited Athlete.

As with training delivery limited athletes, we can also sub-categorize respiratory limited athletes training into a handful of classifications including foundations, tier one energy system training interventions, and tier two energy system training interventions.

When I think about the foundations for improving a respiratory limited athlete’s performance, the first things that come to mind are structural foundations. The reason when anatomy and physiology are traditionally paired together in higher education curricula is that anatomical structures dictate physiological functions. The four primary structural points I’m concerned with for respiratory limited athletes are the position of the pelvis, the position of the thoracic spine, the orientation of the ribcage, and the width of the infrasternal angle of the ribcage. Addressing the structural foundations need not be overly complicated and there are plenty of resources for navigating this area. However, we do need to consider the fact that there is a ‘chicken or egg’ relationship between said structural limitations and respiratory muscle strength. For example, some athletes who are stuck in thoracic extension may be in that position because they have an expiratory muscle strength limitation. In these cases they present with a hyperinflation pattern, which is a state of excess inhalation with inadequate exhalation. This hyperinflated pattern can be asymmetric or symmetric. In the former scenario it’s common for the left side of the rib-cage to be more flared out than the right side, whereas in the latter scenario both sides of the rib cage are flared out. This is a case where function, specifically strength, impacts structure. On the other hand, we can have a scenario where structure impacts functions, which is the case when a kyphotic athlete presents with an inspiratory muscle weakness.

After addressing the aforementioned foundational structures, I start to think about how these structures move as well as the capacity of these structures. Collectively, this compromises the functional foundations for respiratory limited athletes. These functional foundations include the strength of inspiratory and expiratory muscles including the diaphragm, external obliques, and abdominal muscles. These functional foundations alone include the fatigue resistance of the respiratory muscles, breathing coordination, as well as the ability to breath with an optimal depth and frequency in sport specific movement patterns and scenarios.

Once these structural and functional prerequisites are met a respiratory limited athlete can begin redistributing their training volume to spend more time on tier one and tier two energy system training interventions. These include methodologies intended to elicit the following adaptations: improved capacity and efficiency of the cardiopulmonary system, improved respiratory muscle strength and endurance, increased VO2max, and increased output at one’s maximum metabolic steady state.

Tier One Energy System Training Interventions:

The tier one energy system training interventions for respiratory limited athletes can collectively be bucketed together and referred to as ‘balanced delivery and utilization’ training. In this section I am going to lay out general guidelines for balanced delivery and utilization training categories, which include B1 and B2 training respectively. Classically B1 and B2 training would be referred to as threshold and VO2max style training and would fall under the umbrella of functional endurance training or maximal aerobic endurance training because these categories comprise the highest intensities that can elicited before oxygen utilization begins to outstrip oxygen supply.

Any time we discuss compartmentalized energy system training categories we are really drawing proverbial lines in the sand. In truth, these different categories lie on different areas of the spectrum between very low intensities when we are delivering oxygen at a much faster rate than it is utilized up to very high intensities where oxygen utilization greatly supersedes oxygen supply. Practically, B1 and B2 training fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum where oxygen delivery and utilization are closely matched to one another. The difference between said categories is that B2 training is done at the highest output that can be achieved before oxygen utilization begins to outstrio oxygen supply whereas B1 training is done at a slightly lower intensity than that.

Traditionally B1 training is referred to as threshold training. The purpose of B1 training is to decrease the amount of lactate that accumulates above baseline concentrations while working at moderate to high intensities, increase the rate of lactate transport and consumption, as well as to create an individual’s power output that can be sustained before they begin to utilize oxygen at a faster rate than it can be supplied to the skeletal muscle. Typically athletes whose sports require them to operate above or near their critical power for an extended period of time, whether that is in one continuous effort or multiple repeated efforts, can benefit from B1 training. This includes field sport athletes, middle to long distance endurance athletes, and mixed sport athletes like Crossfit competitors. My guidelines for performing B1 training are as follows:

  1. B1 training is best completed in an interval format using roughly forty second to ten minute long intervals and resting between one fourth as long as the interval duration upto the same length as the interval duration. However, B1 training can also be performed in a continuous format with work bouts lasting between ten to forty five minutes.
  2. Performed at high, but tolerable, intensities. This style of training is hard, but should be sustainable for extended durations. For individuals recording biometric data we should expect to see heart rate values between ~85–90% of an individual’s maximum heart rate, small to moderate blood lactate accumulation above baseline concentrations, and muscle oxygen saturation levels stabilized between roughly thirty to forty percent. For those without biometric data, B1 training should be done at ~85–90% effort and if asked an athlete should be able to speak three to four words without gasping for breath afterwards.
  3. B1 training is much more demanding than any of the basic delivery training categories, and as a result roughly forty eight hours are needed for optimal recovery between B1 training sessions.
  4. As with D3 training, B1 training can be performed equally well using both cyclical and mixed modalities. However, this assumes an individual can maintain a high cycle rate and turnover while employing mixed movements and that they can tolerate high contraction volumes of these movements without accruing meaningful muscle damage. The majority of global movements can elicit an appropriate training response during B1 sessions, but the loads will need to be scaled appropriately to ensure that local tissues are not overloaded. Regional movements, like kipping pull ups or push presses, can also be used during B1 training sessions as long as they are combined with a cyclic modality to ensure local muscular endurance limitations do not occur.

Example B1 Training Sessions:

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Evan Peikon is an integrative physiologists with an interest in enhancing human performance. IG: @Evan_Peikon. Website: www.emergentperformancelab.net