This guest blog is written by International breathing expert Patrick McKeown and author of the book The Oxygen Advantage
In the 1970’s, world-renowned Brazilian track coach Luiz De Oliveira used breath-hold training techniques with Olympic athletes Joaquim Cruz and Mary Decker, who set six world records in the 800-meter to one-mile distance running events.1
The goal was to enable athletes to maintain form at the end of an anaerobic race of 400-800m. Another aspect was to improve psychological preparedness by allowing the athletes to maintain composure during an oxygen-deprived state.1 One final factor was to train the runners not to pay attention to their breathing, but instead to focus on tactical maneuvers and running form. De Oliveira’s techniques were a case of getting results first and figuring out the science later, but his theories certainly proved to be right.1
De Oliveira used another exercise in which his 400m and 800m runners held their breath for the last 30 meters, simulating the end of a race when they would be most fatigued. Maintaining form during the last 30 meters of a race like this is crucial. According to De Oliveira, “The most important thing you can do in the race no matter how exhausted you get is to maintain your form.”1
The breath holding component of my book, The Oxygen Advantage, is a significant departure from the traditional breath hold exercises that have been used by athletes since the 1980s. Unlike breath holding following an inhalation, The Oxygen Advantage incorporates breath holds after the breath has been exhaled. This technique creates a number of changes in the body, including a significant decrease of blood oxygen saturation and an increase of carbon dioxide concentration, as demonstrated by a strong feeling of breathlessness.
Lowering blood oxygen saturation provokes the body to generate more red blood cells, and with more red blood cells to carry oxygen, aerobic capacity improves.2 In addition, holding the breath on the exhale greatly disturbs the blood acid base balance, causing the body to make adaptations to delay the onset of lactic acid and fatigue.2 Breath holding also improves psychological preparedness and willpower as it helps an athlete to tolerate strong feelings of breathlessness, an important factor for sprint performance.
The following simple exercise provides an introduction to the Oxygen Advantage technique. (Please do not practice this exercise if you have high blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, diabetes, are pregnant, or have any serious health concerns.)
- Gently breathe in and out through your nose.
- Pinch your nose with your fingers to hold your breath.
- Walk while holding your breath until you feel a medium to strong air hunger.
- As the air hunger gets stronger, jog or sprint.
- Resume breathing through your nose and calm your breathing immediately.
- Rest for a half minute to one minute, before repeating again.
Program for Sprinters
The objective of the exercise is to be challenging, but not stressful.
Following the breath hold, the athlete should recover breathing within two to three breaths.
Practice two sets of six repetitions daily with about one minute rest between each.
You should increase by ten paces weekly.
The goal for sprinters is to walk/jog 80 to 100 paces while holding the breath.
For this exercise it can be motivating to wear a hand-held pulse oximeter to observe your blood oxygen saturation lower to 80% to 87%, simulating training at an altitude of 4,000-5,000 metres (13,000-16,400 ft).
In my experience, the vast majority of athletes can achieve simulation of altitude training within three to four days of practice, however, progress will depend on your level of fitness, and genetic predisposition.
1- Mckeown, P. The Oxygen Advantage. London, England: Little Brown; 2015.
Oxygenadvantage.com Oxygen Advantage. [Online]. Available from: http://oxygenadvantage.com/science/ [Accessed 10 January 2018].
About the Author
International breathing expert and author Patrick McKeown completed his clinical training in the Buteyko Breathing Method at the Buteyko Clinic, Moscow, Russia in 2002 and was accredited by the late Professor Konstantin Buteyko. Patrick’s book, The Oxygen Advantage, is an extension of this work, combining simulation of high-altitude training and specifically-formulated exercises which empower athletes to improve their sports performance safely, legally and at no cost.