Should you consider breath-hold training to boost your running performance?
Dr Thomas Solomon, PhD.
31st Mar 2020.
Reading time ~5-mins (700-words)
or listen to Podcast version here.
In my recent series on cold exposure, I touched on the dive response and breath-holding. A couple of weeks ago, Alex Hutchinson released an article describing how sea-divers and those who have used breath-hold methods, faired well on long-duration, multi-day, slow-moving, very high-altitude ascents by seemingly acclimating rapidly to the high altitude exposure. At that time, I wanted to follow up on his article because this summer some of my athletes were to be heading to various parts of Europe to compete in long-distance trail races and obstacle course races (OCR) at moderate to high altitudes. Consequently, a few people asked me, “Should I start breath-hold training?”. Unfortunately, in the face of COVID-19-induced interruption as well as the postponement of all races, this issue was not at the top of my list. Alas, finally, here are my thoughts...
Because repeated apneas in cold conditions cause splenic contraction and increase oxygen availability to tissues, it is of great interest as to whether breath-hold training can improve exercise performance. Yes, breath-hold training can increase haemoglobin levels and, therefore, your blood might then be able to carry more oxygen and deliver it to tissues more efficiently. To then speculate that breath-hold training will improve your running performance is appealing but this would be a nonsensical wild leap because it has not been systematically studied.
At this time, the evidence shows that breath-hold training may increase your ability to hold your breath and that cyclic hyperventilation combined with breath-holding may increase your ability to withstand cold exposure. Breath-hold training does not, however, appear to manifest improved endurance exercise performance. Consequently, breath-hold training is not likely to be a good time investment if you are seeking to improve your running performance. If you are fortunate enough to have 10-minutes spare a day to dedicate to additional training, I would strongly encourage favouring an extra 10-mins a day of EASY-effort running instead of toying with methods that have an uncertain outcome. Why? Well, quite simply, because boosting your volume of low-intensity work is guaranteed to increase your endurance capacity with minimal stress, helping to shuttle more oxygen to your muscles to facilitate greater fuel oxidation and ATP synthesis for when you need it during prolonged, high-intensity efforts. Yes, you may have heard about how Jon Albon used to practice Wim Hof breathing every morning, but remember that he was already a multiple world champion before starting that practice. If you are not at the pinnacle of world class human performance, focus on optimising all of your training ingredients that will have benefit before reaching for the unknowns that might exert a marginal gain.
Thanks for reading, and until next time, keep active, stay well, and keep training smart!
Sometimes I mention brands and products. I am not sponsored by or receiving advertisement royalties from any brands. Any recommendations I make are, and always will be, based on my own views and opinions. I have conducted biomedical research for which I have received funding from publicly-funded national research councils and medical charities, but also from private companies, including Novo Nordisk Foundation, AstraZeneca, Amylin, the A.P. Møller Foundation, and the Augustinus Foundation. These companies had no control over the research design, data analysis, or publication outcomes of my work.
About the author:
Thomas Solomon is passionate about relaying scientific information to the masses and helping folks meet their fitness and performance goals. He holds a BSc in Biochemistry and a PhD in Exercise Science and is an ACSM-certified Exercise Physiologist and Personal Trainer, a VDOT-certified Distance running coach, and a Registered Nutritionist. Since 2002, he has conducted biomedical research in exercise and nutrition and has taught and led university courses in biochemistry, molecular medicine, and exercise physiology. His work is published in over 70 peer-reviewed medical journal publications and he has delivered over 50 conference presentations & invited talks at universities and medical societies. Thomas has coached and provided training plans for truck-loads of athletes and regular folk, has competed at the highest level in obstacle course racing, and continues to run, lift, and climb. To stay on top of scientific developments, he participates in journal clubs, peer-reviews grants and journal papers, and invests every Friday in reading what new delights have spawned onto PubMed. In his spare time, Thomas hunts for phenomenal mountain views to capture through the lens, boulder problems to solve, and for new craft beer with the goal of sending his gustatory system into a hullabaloo.