Respiratory System Limitations

As we have introduced the three physiological systems that fuel elite athletic performance in previous posts, we will now delve into each individually. The starting point of any elite athletic performance should be the respiratory system. Without an efficient ability to take O2 from your surrounding environment to help fuel you on race day you will find it incredibly difficult to get the results you want.

Respiratory System

The respiratory system is made up of your lungs, inspiratory and expiratory muscles. Within the functional fitness community this might be the most overlooked and misunderstood of all the systems. As you have probably heard many exclaim during or after a particularly challenging workout, ‘I just couldn’t breathe!’. Why? You would think we would spend more time understanding this system, identifying limitations and training them.

On average we take 20,000 breaths per day and probably don’t ever even think twice about how it all works. On each of these breaths your lungs are taking available O2 from your environment. Our body has to somehow convert this gas so that it can be delivered and utilized internally. This gas exchange occurs at the alveoli. The alveolar sacs are surrounded by capillaries, as such deeper breaths that fill alveoli are beneficial to O2 delivery to the muscles.

We may think that as such whatever genetics we have are what we are stuck with. While initial capacity is important, both the inspiratory (diaphragm and external intercoastal) as well as expiratory muscles (abdominals and internal intercoastal) both react to training stimulus.

Capacity VS Capability

Limitations in the respiratory system usually center around one of two main categories, capacity or capability. Where as capacity refers to the total amount that can be contained produced, capability focuses on the ability to utilize said capacity.

Capacity limitation is present when an individual has a capacity lower than what would be normal for their age, sex, height and ethnicity using spirometry to test the individual. There are various reason for this type of limitation such as, asthma, EIB or COPD. They could also have a structural limitation such as limited thoracic and rib mobility that limits their ability to take in the necessary oxygen.

How is it Measured?

Capacity is measured in litters through a FVC (Forced Total Capacity). An individual upon taking in a deep breath will then use a spirometer to measure the amount they can exhale in 6 seconds or FVC6. Along with this measurement we want to know how much of that were they able to exhale in the 1st second or FEV1 (Force Expiratory Volume). For example, a male Caucasian that is 5’6 should have a FVC6 of 4.48L and FEV1 of 3.61. Measurements lower than the predicted values would mean this individual has a respiratory capacity limitation.

Once the capacity has been established then capability can be measured using oxygen/metabolic testing to determine if the individual is able to utilize said capacity. If either the capacity or the ability to properly coordinate their breath during exercise are present, then this individual has a respiratory limitation. Any protocol other than respiratory training is simply training compensators and not the root issue (respiratory limitation).

It would be more valuable to add respiratory training protocols to your training to properly address this limitation in conjunction with the ongoing training. There are many tools on the market that can assist with respiratory training. Some are more effective than others and we will get into these tools in later posts.

Stay tuned!