Have you ever focused on training your breath? No, I don’t mean cardio, I mean literally how you breathe.
This week, I sat down with Luke Way, CEO of The Breathe Way Isocapnic Respiratory Training System, and Dr. Andrew Sellars, Chief Science Officer and an anesthesiologist, to talk about the respiratory system and its importance for sport.
Luke is an endurance coach, specializing in elite level triathlon, but also working with mountain bikers and CrossFitters. After training for 20 years, he noticed that most athletes were limiting their performance because of the way they breathe, so he started to figure out how to better train the respiratory system. He partnered with his mentor, Dr. Sellars, and another close friend to invent the Isocapnic Breathe Way Better Training System, a three pillared system that consists of the hardware, the software, and the curation of knowledge.
Dr. Sellars is one of the most respected authorities on athletic respiratory performance. His expertise informs the Isocapnic Breathe Way Better Training System. In addition to his work as CSO and anesthesiologist, he has a masters in athletic coaching. He co-founded Balance Point Racing and was a previous guest on this show.
“Like there’s the whole tolerating of CO2 part, which is amazing. But then there’s the whole supercharging your respiratory system in a way that allows you to access more of the range of motion you have. So you think about like any limb on your body, your arm, for example. It has a range of motion that it’s capable of. Now, your lungs and your respiratory system has a range of motion as well. The difference with the respiratory system is that you’re using it 24/7, but you’re using it in a range of motion that’s very small and metabolically cheap to use, which is a good thing when you’re at rest, but we want to be able to access that full range of motion when the time comes.”– Luke Way
- Is the respiratory system a limiting factor in sport?
- How we use the respiratory system in sport
- The potential for gains by training your respiratory system
- What does a good breath look like?
- Do you need to nasal breathe?
- How to know if it’s working
- How does respiratory training help at altitude?
- How does this impact VO2 max?
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- Learn more about the science behind Isocapnic
- Check out the Isocapnic Starter Kit
- Related podcast: Why Training with Wattage and Heart Rate Isn’t Enough with Dr. Andrew Sellars
- Related podcast: How to Heat Train for Endurance Events with Balance Point Coaching
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Sonya Looney: Andrew Dr. Sellars, welcome back to the show. Luke, welcome back to the show. You guys have both been on.
Luke Way: Yes, yeah, it’s been a while.
Sonya: So before we get into it, I’ll just let the audience know that all linked to all of the episodes that we’ve recorded, we’ve recorded about respiratory system, kind of a primer. In the past, we’ve talked about heat training and altitude training and lots of fun stuff. So for people who are preparing for their races and their events next year, that’s a really good place to start. But for today, we are going to dive deeper into the respiratory system. So I guess a good place to start for people who haven’t heard any previous episodes and who aren’t familiar with the respiratory system, can one of you take the take the ball on this one and talk about the respiratory system in regards to how we use it in sport?
Luke: Hey, go for it, Andrew.
Dr. Andrew Sellars: Yeah, so breathing is important, obviously. In the ABCs of life, you have airway, which you need to have to be able to move air in and out through your system. And then you need breathing and that’s number two. And without breathing, everything else falls apart fairly quickly. So yeah, so the importance of breathing for sport is the fact that every increase in intensity of sport requires an increase in respiratory effort. And that respiratory effort is really driven by the accumulation of CO2. So carbon dioxide develops in the muscles from the metabolism to create energy, to create the movement that you’re doing in whatever sport you’re doing, whether it’s rock climbing, or cycling, or running, swimming does, it doesn’t matter what sport you’re doing, every increase in intensity will require you to breathe harder, faster, deeper. And we can talk about those dynamics a little bit later, because there’s metrics that go with each one of those. But the whole purpose of doing that is twofold. One everybody thinks about is providing oxygen to the muscles. And that’s why people breathe. But the drive to breathe more is not to provide more oxygen to the muscles, because you can only provide a certain amount of oxygen and once the oxygen is there, you can use it however you want. But it really is to get rid of the carbon dioxide, which is really tightly regulated in the human body to maintain a normal pH, so that’s the acidity level of the blood. And your pH is tightly controlled by recent chemo receptors in your brain because the enzymes that help break down fuels and create energy are very sensitive to changes in pH. So our human pH is maintained between 7.35 and 7.45. And anything outside of that range is really unhealthy, but also not well tolerated. So people don’t do well with pHs outside of that. As soon as your CO2 starts to rise, or pH will drop it, it contributes to the acidity and your it triggers your brain to breathe deeper and breathe faster. So the whole concept of respiratory training and the reason and the importance of understanding how you breathe during exercise is really how you’re controlling your CO2 levels, that’s the simplistic version of it. There are lots of complicated physiology about what happens with rising levels of CO2. And we can talk about that maybe later about CO2 tolerance and things like that and what happens for free divers when they’re doing long breath holds of four, five, six minutes. And they are really masters of tolerating changes in pH and changes in CO2 levels. But for the average athlete, and for the athletes that we’re training and competing, their CO2 are held very tightly regulated, and how we get that is controlled by how we breathe.
Luke: To simplify, for us to push harder on the bike or the run or whatever we’re doing, requires us to breathe harder, right, for us to respond with our lungs, working harder, our respiratory system working harder. And so that takes up a certain amount of energy in the system to do and the reality is, is that 70% of people are limited by that system. And so their performance is then held back by how hard their lungs can work. So that’s where the rest of your training sort of steps in, is to make that more efficient so it’s no longer a limitation and you can actually push your muscles to their max.
Sonya: Yeah, I think a lot of people haven’t actually thought about training their respiratory system. They think I’m gonna go do intervals and they don’t realize that in doing that you sort of are training your respiratory system and you’re not doing it by itself, but you are. That’s one of the points of doing an interval workout. Can you talk about how an interval workout for example, and I know there’s different types of interval workouts, but how that is interacting with the respiratory system, and it’s not just you training your legs?
Luke: Sure, yeah. So, a typical, pre-respiratory training interval set would be like the session that I just came back from. So the guys were doing about 12 times 800 meters up this climb, and then they run back down, and they rest. And they do it again, and again, and again. And that’s a pretty typical, like, hill repeat sort of sort of session. Now, with that, you’re going to get the muscular benefit of it, of charging up the hill, and that’s going to drive respiratory demand and cardiac demand, and all these benefits, and then you come running back down, and you kind of do it again and again. Now, the challenges is, as we have found over the past two decades of testing, is that most people, our need to work their respiratory system specifically. And they don’t necessarily need to be pushing massive hill repeats, to fulfill the goal of their training. And so we can actually focus those specific athletes on just the respiratory portion of that same set. So let’s say the set is four minutes up and three minutes down, well, okay, perfect, so we can do a four-minute-long respiratory training specific set, and, and let the whole rest of your system not be stressed out and recover from whatever else has been done. And so as far as your lungs are concerned, and the musculature related to your respiratory system, it’s working as hard if not harder than it would in that interval set. But the whole rest of your system gets to actually recover and be ready for whatever other training is coming up. And so the grand total training load for the week then gets amplified because we’re not over stressing systems as a surrogate of getting the training effect, what we’re looking for, and then we can focus that actual training on the other systems that need the work, if that makes sense.
Sonya: Yeah, and I think that just to simplify a little bit further is, you start going harder, you start breathing harder, and that’s because there’s CO2 that’s rising in your body, and your body needs to blow off the CO2. But you’re saying that you can learn and train to tolerate more CO2 and that is done by me, and correct me if I’m wrong, chemo receptors kind of in your in your brain are sensing how much co2 is there. And then there’s a judge of how much pH, has the pH gone more acidic in my body, and you start breathing harder. So you’re actually also training your breathing while you’re out there doing 30 second intervals, five-minute intervals, it just your respiratory frequency, how hard you’re breathing, how fast you’re breathing, that is different based on how hard you’re going. But by doing that, you’re not just training how fast you can go, how strong your legs are, even how your heart, your training, your ability to tolerate CO2 in your body. And you’re also training all of these respiratory muscles in your like your intercostal muscles, your diaphragm, and you’re also working on your coordination so that you can coordinate all of these muscles to breathe in a proper way. So what you’re saying is that, yes, you can train that out on the bike or running, but using a device, such as the device that you have, Isocapnic Breathe Way Better, you can train your respiratory muscles, you can train yourself to tolerate more CO2 without having to go out there and bury yourself in an interval workout.
Luke: Oh, yeah, it’s several fold, right? Like there’s the whole tolerating of CO2 part, which is amazing. But then there’s the whole supercharging your respiratory system in a way that allows you to access more of the range of motion you have. So you think about like any limb on your body, your arm, for example. It has a range of motion that it’s capable of. Now, your lungs and your respiratory system has a range of motion as well. The difference with the respiratory system is that you’re using it 24/7, but you’re using it in a range of motion that’s very small and metabolically cheap to use, which is a good thing when you’re at rest, but we want to be able to access that full range of motion when the time comes. And so, a good example, I was training an athlete yesterday, who’s an ex national team rower and has like eight and a half liter lung capacity, just big old lungs, right? It’s like, wow, okay, awesome. I can’t wait to see how this looks like when you’re in the middle of an interval. And so we slowly bump him up when he’s riding his bike. And he never got above two and a half liters of breath volume during exercise. Yeah, he’s barely using what he has, because all he ever uses is this tiny little range of motion that he’s used to using at rest. And then when it comes time to actually work hard, it’s the coordination and strength to move that much air is just not there. It’s not conditioned.
Dr. Sellars: And that’s an important point to point out, because what Sonya was mentioning is that by doing intervals, you’re going to increase your CO2 tolerance. And the fact is that most people won’t increase CO2 tolerance just by doing intervals, because they’ll default back into the breathing pattern that blows off the CO2. So unless the focus is to breathe less, or breathe less than what your body is signaling, you will not increase your CO2 tolerance. So you need to actually consciously control the breathing to a slower rate, in order to develop a higher CO2 that will eventually lead to tolerance. So the fact of doing intervals and this again probably indicates why in the literature there’s such a wide range of results to different interval pattern. So whether you look at Tabata, or high intensity interval training sessions of a minute versus three minutes versus five minutes, every study ever done is going to say, there’s going to be about a third of the athletes are going to benefit from that kind of training, there’s going to be about a third of the athletes that don’t really benefit, is it going to third, it actually might get worse with any specific intervention. And the challenge is that why did some of them get better? Well, some of them got better because they physiologically adapted to that training, and then were able to use it in future testing. Whereas the training methods that were used, whether it’s a Tabata 30 seconds on 30 seconds off, didn’t actually stimulate the limitation that would actually lead to improve performance. And so if you look back at literature on either respiratory training or interval training, you’ll see that there always responders and non-responders and all of our focus from a coaching should be on why did it work? So not, did it work? Great. If it works, that’s fine as but why did it work. Physiologically, what were the changes that happened with that intervention that allowed for improved performance for that specific athlete? And why did the other athlete not respond? If they didn’t respond, then we need to change the training. And that comes back to the whole focus of philosophy of coaching, of not calling them non-responders calling them, it’s that’s a teachable moment for the coach. And if your athlete didn’t respond to the training, it wasn’t the athlete’s fault, they’re not a non-responder, you didn’t give them the right stimulus to actually provide the change. And that really should warrant a deeper look into what the athlete needs in order to have the change in performance.
Sonya: So through all this testing that you’ve done over the years, and I’ve done plenty of tests with Balance Point and with you guys, how would training the respiratory system impact performance? Because we’re hearing your example with the rower, he’s only using, you know, 25% of his lung capacity. What does that translate to if he’s able to train his respiratory system? And then start using maybe five liters or six liters or higher capacity? What does that mean?
Dr. Sellars: Yeah, so I’ll try and do this really simply, just as a reminder, because I was going back to something that Luke was going to mention, I think earlier was at a high intensity effort, about 15% of your cardiac output, the energy needed to create energy is going to the respiratory system just to maintain adequate perfusion of the lungs and perfusion of the body with oxygen. So if, for example, the rower who’s inefficiently breathing, he’s using 15% of his energy just to breathe, that’s if he’s efficiently working, it might be 17, 18, 19% of his energy is actually just to breathe really fast, because he’s having he’s breathing such small volumes. If we can improve his efficiency of breathing, and take 5% of that energy that is currently being used just to breathe, and push it into his legs so that he can cycle faster, that’s a 5% improvement in performance of his cycling. So making the respiratory system more efficient, or using the respiratory patterns that are more efficient for the lung volumes that you’re capable of, is going to lead to improved performance just by reducing the energy requirements to breathe. So a simple example on one person.
Luke: Yeah, I mean, the thing to remember that the energetic side of things is that yeah, it’s 15% at sub threshold intensities, but that increases once you go over a threshold, it goes up until its 35% or more, especially if you’re inefficient, right. And so that falls apart pretty quickly.
Sonya: And this is something to really think about, because people will spend thousands of dollars to shed 500 grams off their bike so that they can, go faster, or maybe they’re overtraining because they’re thinking, well, if I just do a little bit more riding, I’m just gonna get faster. And everybody’s trying to make these gains but this is a very obvious gain with a very large potential to improve of your performance. So with that, how do people actually do this? What device do they use if they’re thinking well, okay, I want to my respiratory system and how do I do that if I’m not out running or riding my bike where there’s a forced demand for me to start breathing faster or breathing slower, so that I have more CO2?
Luke: Yeah. So, I mean, over the years, we’ve gone through using all sorts of different devices to try to isolate this system, and train it effectively. And we’ve obviously gravitated towards a more isocapnic type of training. And so that’s a recapturing of your exhaled gases and allowing you to rebreathe it, this allows you to breathe as hard and as fast as you could possibly imagine, without becoming faint, right, without hyper, or hypo-ventilating. So it maintains blood gas as well, like really challenging the respiratory musculature. And so that’s where our device comes into the market is that we created, there it is right there, the Isocapnic Breathe Way Better. And so it uses fluid dynamics to maintain the appropriate amount of fresh air in and the appropriate amount of CO2 vented off. And so allowing you to breathe from 10 breaths per minute, all the way up to the sky’s the limit, 80 breaths per minute, if you like. But typically people are maxing out somewhere around 35 to 45 breaths per minute. And then we can break down training even further between structural and functional types of training. So for this athlete we’re talking about earlier that has a great amount of total volume, he has great structure, but he just needs to learn how to use it. And so teaching him to just cycle five or six liters is a big challenge and doing it at you know, 25-35 breaths per minute, is the goal for the next eight to 10 weeks with this guy. For a pretty large majority of people, it’s actual, like structural change that we’re looking for. And, and so that might mean going to a chiropractor and freeing up some ribs, that might mean doing mobility exercises to help open things up structurally, and then strengthening your diaphragm and improving that range of motion so you’re actually able to access more of your volume.
Sonya: Now, can you quickly say walk us through what a good breath looks like, because a lot of people are have like to have like a tight neck or they’re like breathing through their chest and their shoulders are heaving up and down and they’re not even using their full range of motion. So can you talk about that?
Luke: Yeah, so it’s extremely common for adults to breathe very chesty. And so as they breathe in, they suck their guts in, and they blow up their chest and their neck increases and their shoulders come up, and that’s how they breathe, they suck in, and then as they breathe out, they relax. This is sort of the opposite. If you watch an infant child breathe when they’re sleeping especially you’ll see their little belly moving up and down. You see like their belly move out as they breathe in, and they see their belly move in as they breathe out. And so they’re belly breathing from the diaphragm. And this is hugely important for sport. Training an athlete the other day that’s a Brazilian jujitsu artist and so obviously a lot of upper body bracing and holding in sort of an isometric pattern. And so to breathe in a chesty way is impossible, you need to have that diaphragmatic range of motion to continue to cycle CO2. And this is the same thing for mountain bikers, you’re locked in holding on your handlebars if you’re a mountain biker. It’s even worse, if you’re a time trial, it’s because you’re even tighter. So having that diaphragmatic range of motion is hugely important. So the exercise that we get people to do to start out is just one hand on your chest, one hand on your belly, and you want to feel as you breathe in that your upper hand doesn’t move, and your bottom hand moves out or it relaxes out. You breathe into your belly and your belly button and then as you exhale, you squeeze your abs towards your spine, right, but your chest stays the same. Out with the belly, into your spine. And so most of that range of motion is coming from that lower abdomen. Once we’re at that point, then we start looking at how we can improve volumes and then improving the strength on there.
Dr. Sellars: It’s a good reminder that the diaphragm is one of the few muscles in the body that’s 100% slow twitch fibers. It has no fast twitch fibers, but it is a muscle, just like skeletal muscle. It can be it can develop strength, it can develop coordination, just like any other bicep, tricep, quads. It is just a muscle that can be trained and it can be thickened, it can get bigger, thicker, more dynamic and can, as Luke was mentioning, can move through a bigger range of motion with training. So those are all changes that can happen with specific focus on respiratory, which is why there’s benefits for yoga and meditation, a lot of the focus of yoga and meditation is on breathing and it has benefits and rolled over into athletics just from learning how to breathe properly. And it really is the first part of any kind of respiratory training program, whether you’re trying to train for jujitsu or triathlon, or anything else, the first step is actually learn how to breathe efficiently, which is using the diaphragm.
Luke: Yeah, one really cool thing that’s very interesting to see in action is how people new to range of motion respiratory training, like cycling big ranges that they’ve never done before, is just how your neurologic system connects to that diaphragm. And what I’ve found is that certainly with new coordinations like this that they’ve never done before, is that that the neurologic bandwidth to tell your diaphragm to move in this way, is going to be connected to something else, whether that’s moving of your back or maybe that’s moving with your neck or one scenario I had the other day is the actual constricting of the voice box. And so I had an athlete that couldn’t actually breathe faster than 25 breaths per minute without actually like creating sound from their voice box. And it took us like backing things right off to teach them how to relax here and contract here. So it’s funny how the neurologic system connects these systems to save energy, and it takes training to separate those coordinations out so you can relax one and continue to work the other.
Dr. Sellars: We’ve worked with a lot of athletes who have been diagnosed with exercise induced asthma who actually don’t have any signs of asthma, they have a problem with the respiratory system. We have worked with athletes who have been diagnosed with acid reflux because they get sore vocal cords. They get hoarse voices after high intensity exercise. And they’ve been worked up by gastroenterology by cardiology for all these different challenges they think are related to other systems that have nothing…it has everything to do with what Luke just mentioned, is the neural activity of the muscles and the inappropriate contraction of muscles that should not be used for breathing under most circumstances. They’re their accessory muscles that are there to help the respiratory system at maximal efforts, but really, from a sports perspective, they have no benefit in terms of moving air efficiently; we can do that all with diaphragm and intercostal muscles. We should be doing it all the diaphragm and intercostal muscles.
Sonya: I wanted to ask about nasal breathing, because whenever using the Breathe Way Better, this is a podcast was audio so people should check out what it looks like but it’s basically just a really small mouthpiece and then this like large silicone bag that you breathe in and out of. It’s not this like crazy technical looking device with all these bells and whistles. And it’s simple and effective. And I think that that’s really a really important point to make. And it’s really easy to take with you anywhere you go. But what about the nasal breathing thing because a lot of people have read the book Breath by James Nestor and a lot of people are trying to breathe through their nose, while they’re exercising. So how does that all come into play with all of this?
Dr. Sellars: I’m happy to say that it’s coming because we’re developing a nasal breathing version of Breathe Way Better. It is something that’s high on our list of things to address. Certainly there’s benefit to nasal breathing, anybody who’s read those breath options advantage or Breath by James Nestor they’re great books and they have opened up a whole other level of respiratory interest. And absolutely there is benefit to it. So you can do the training and realistically at high intensity exercise you’re going to end up breathing through your mouth. It is very challenging to breathe to draw enough air fast enough in and out through your nose just because of the constriction of the nasal passages. But for sure there is benefit at all intensities up into high intensity to optimize nasal breathing for a number of different reasons as outlined in the books and some of it has to do with simulation the nitric oxide pathways and of the humidification and the smooth flowing of air which actually is probably the biggest benefit from reducing the irritation of turbulent airflow. So by breathing through the nose, it actually smooths the airflow down into the trachea and directs it smoother so you get less turbulence of air. Turbulent air causes irritation, causes increased phlegm, causes increased inflammation in the airways themselves. And this is why a lot of athletes get diagnosed with exercise induced asthma is because of high intensity, they’re breathing such turbulent air that is actually causing the irritation that looks like asthma and it feels like asthma, they get wheezy, they get challenges with secretions and they get challenges with inflammation, and that is what asthma is. The challenge is the only reason they have it is because they are literally breathing turbulent air. And if you can smooth down that airflow by breathing slower, breathing bigger volumes, and ideally breathing as much of it through your nose as possible, you’ll reduce the turbulence of the airflow. So yes, nasal breathing, absolutely important. And there will be a new device coming out to support Breathe Way to be able to do nasal breathing room to Breathe Way Better.
Sonya: So what is a workout look like? If somebody’s using one of these, and how does that impact your regular training?
Luke: So you can use Breathe Way as a part of a regular workout or you can do it as its own workout. For people just getting to know the Breathe Way, probably one of the best ways to start with it is using it as part of your warm up routine. And so let’s say you’re going to get ready to go and do a bike ride, but it can be anything, and just leave yourself five minutes of time before you get on the bike to do a little Breathe Way set, start out at 15 breaths per minute, you’re going to increase by two breaths per minute, every 30 seconds, and you just go up until it feels, just before the point where you feel like, okay, this is a workout. It shouldn’t feel like a workout, it should just feel like a mobilizing exercise. And so that’s a brilliant way to warm up the respiratory system. It’s awesome pre workout, it’s amazing pre race, right, you think about getting ready for a mountain bike race, for example, typically speaking, you’re pinning it to win it right off the get go. And so to actually get that system properly warmed up for that intensity is really difficult to do, especially because the respiratory system is going to be a major limiter in pulling it off the line like that. And so this allows you to actually get the range of motion out of the respiratory system, before hitting the start line. From a swimming perspective, I mean, this is such a fun way to think about it. You know, it is very typical that, you know, we do spirometry, before and after a warm up, it’s very typical to see an athlete improved their respiratory volumes by about 200 milliliters, now that’s 200 more milliliters of air you’re able to hold. And when you’re swimming, that changes your buoyancy in the water makes you more efficient. And so it’s just hugely beneficial to do it as part of your warm up. But then to do a standalone workout, this can look at any other interval set or steady state set you’re used to doing in regular training. The typical steady state workout might look like three to five times four minutes, holding a breath rate, that’s just below challenging for you. So that might be like 28 breaths per minute. And you’re just holding that and the primary focus there is to try to cycle range of motion, right and use the coordination patterns that are going to be relevant to your sport. So whether that’s like in aero position, or that’s holding a plank, or just at rest even is a big challenge for a lot of people. But maybe you want to do more of an intense strength based workout, in which case you might do, over unders where you might do 20 breaths per minute for 30 seconds on, and 30 seconds off I should say, and then you’re 30 seconds on, it’s like 45 or 55 breaths per minute, and you cycle through that for, you know, five to 10 minutes, depending on how fit you are with your respiratory system. So it can look like a lot of different ways. To include it into a regular training session, one of the favorite ones for my local guys here is on the track. So they’ll do an interval on the track that might be 800 meters that might be 1000 meters, whatever the running interval is, as soon as they stop their run interval, they hop immediately on to the Breathe Way for 90 seconds and they try to prolong that respiratory output that they’re that they were using on the track, off the track. And so they’re maintaining that same output for an additional 90 seconds.
Sonya: Sorry to interrupt, what do you mean by maintaining the same output?
Luke: So let’s say when you’re on the track running your breathing, you know, four liters per breath at at 45 breaths per minute, right. And so that’s what it takes for you to sustain that pace. And so when you when you stop on the track, normally you just take a rest interval, and then do your next one. But what we do is we do an extra 90 seconds of Breathe Way before they get their rest.
Sonya: So they breathe at 45 breaths a minute. And that’s and what if their respiratory capacity because they’re fatigued is maybe they’re breathing like three liters now, does that matter?
Luke: So the challenge is the focus here, right. And so the actual volumes are interesting to watch. But the challenge is what we’re after. And so for some athletes, that type of workout is too difficult, they might only be able to hold on for 30 seconds at a time. But I know athletes that are physically too early on in their respiratory system to train in this way. They have to separate the regular training and the respiratory system. And so it just depends on the athlete and where they’re at with their training.
Dr. Sellars: And similarly, Luke was talking about the athlete that had trouble separating as she increased her respiratory rate. So she was limited by a respiratory rate of 25, before things started to fall apart for her. And we’ve seen lots of athletes who they will have an upper limit of how fast they can breathe efficiently and effectively and it’ll affect their running. So they will limit their running their cadence to match their fastest breathing rate. So you will see them on the track, they will get to a certain cadence, and then they will slow down or they will hold that slow cadence because they can’t breathe any faster. So what you can do now is you can help them by giving them an interval where they’re actually pushing their cadence and their breathing up to whatever their limit is. And when they stop, and you take away the running portion and you just have been focused on the breathing, you can actually push them on their breathing rate faster than they were able to go on their run, and then put them back on the run. So they’re doing a combined workout between running efficiency and cadence work and respiratory efficiency and breathing work that is slightly different to push their tolerance a little bit higher. And again, it takes a coach with some understanding of where the limitations are. And it tastes some ability to actually measure how they’re breathing during the run. And whether you’re using a device to measure that, like the portable VO2 monitor, or you’re just using an app, you’re teaching an athlete, how to count their breaths, both are valid ways of doing it. It’s just hard for some athletes that monitor their breathing rate. But the first part of all of this is education, about helping them understand how they’re breathing, how fast they’re breathing, and how deep they’re breathing during the sport that they’re doing. And one of the benefits of Breathe Way is we attach it to an app that has, as a free app that has a metronome attached to it so that they can actually feel what the different breathing rates feel like. And then they can incorporate that into their run training or their cycling training to understand how different breathing patterns have different efficiencies attached to them. Yeah, and those are all very individualized.
Luke: Yeah, so and I mean, another big mandate that we have in this project is giving people what they need to succeed. You know, one of the big pain points prior to this project was finding experts and finding protocols for us to use, and we ended up having to become those experts, because there was just nothing out there. And so as part of this project, we have the hardware itself that allows you to do the training and we have the app that allows you to understand rhythms and maintaining good range of motions. But then we also have a blog full of training programs for free that people can utilize and see the improvement that they want to see. And so that was a major, a major piece of this puzzle for us was making sure that there’s just we’ve removed as many barriers as possible so people can see the benefit from respiratory training.
Sonya: How many times a week that somebody you need to do respiratory training to make a difference?
Luke: That’s a great question, I love that one. So, again, right, it depends. I can think of a very specific athlete, that when we first started training with her with respiratory training, we started with three or four sets a week, and she came back one week in, she’s like, I’m totally all the rest of my training is messed, I can’t recover. My wattage is way down. I just, it’s just impossible for me to do this. So we had to back things up to about one session a week until the respiratory system started to get fit enough to sustain it throughout the rest of her training.
Dr. Sellars: That’s not that’s not an uncommon experience. You have athletes that are really gung ho and they take on respiratory training like they’ve taken on successfully cycling and other things, and they go hard at it. But they go hard at it for a few days, and then they realize that they are completely tanked. And it’s completely fried their system. Yeah, and then it takes them a week to recover. And until you balance it out, it’s like doing chin ups, if you do a ton of chin ups two or three days in a row, your arms are going to be really, really sore if you haven’t done it before. That’s exactly what happened to the respiratory system. It doesn’t get quite as sore because there’s not the eccentric loading, but it gets fatigued. And you can’t feel the fatigue until you try and do another workout. Something that was easy for you before is now really, really hard and that’s just because your respiratory system is fatigued. And again, that is the proof of why respiratory training is so important is if you can actually make yourself tired just by breathing, you have to understand that every training session you’re doing needs a focus on some aspect of your breathing to understand that you’re fatiguing that system with whatever kind of training you’re doing.
Luke: And to give you like a sense of like spectrum, a lot of our athletes that have been doing this for many, many years now, it’s sort of like their standard respiratory training through the week becomes part of their daily routine, like a wake up in the morning, brush their teeth and as they’re answering emails, they’re also doing their Breathe Way set. Right. And so they can do it six, seven times a week, because that system is well trained. And it’s just a matter of maintaining volumes and getting the day going.
Sonya: Okay, yeah, there’s so many different ways that I could continue going. And I’m just keeping an eye on the time here, because I think this is something I could talk about for a couple of hours. I guess, an important question is, how does somebody know that this is working? So they’re doing their respiratory training, they’re using the free training plans online, but then they get on their bike or they go running, how do they know if it’s working or not?
Luke: So there’s a couple different ways that you can objectively monitor this. Probably the easiest way to do it was with was a step test. Just a very simple way to measure how fit you are with the device. So just like in the warmup, you’ll start out at about 15 breaths per minute, and you’ll slowly make it harder. Every 30 seconds, you may get two or three breaths per minute harder, or faster, until you keep going and going and going until you find that you’re no longer able to maintain the same volumes that you were at the beginning, right. And so you can do this subjectively or you can clip the bag to understand the volumes that are relevant to you. And so that’s one way to do it. So initially that point where you tap out, and you’re no longer able to hold volumes might be 35 breaths per minute. And then as we see training get better and better, that goes to 38 breaths per minute that goes to 40 breaths per minute, and so on, and so forth. As you get fitter and fitter as we go on. Another really easy way to do it at home, most people have like a cloth tape measure and you can measure the circumference of your chest and the circumference of your torso or your waist, I guess, both on the inhale and on the exhale. And as you are accessing more range of motion, you’ll see that that range of motion increase. And then the last way and one of my favorite ways is using spirometry. Most general practitioners should have access to a spirometer, if not, we have for sale on our website. But basically what that does is that measures both the strength of your respiratory system and your total volume, or what’s called the forced vital capacity of your respiratory system. And so with that, we get to see just how big your lungs are and how big your lungs are compared to what we would expect your lungs to be with how tall you are. We can get a really close guess as to what your potential might be and then you might only be 60% of that potential. And so we want to see that improve. And then of course, we get the strength component of that, to see just how strong you are at cycling through or pushing that air out of your out of your mouth.
Dr. Sellars: I would also add, and I think those are great for measuring the respiratory system, what Luke’s talking about is actually measuring changes to the respiratory system, either volumes or strength and coordination at the different rates. What most athletes are going to be wanting to know is how it is actually affecting their ability to ride or run faster. And so for the same reason that that idea of a step test is something that we’ve used at Balance Point for years, is starting at a really low intensity, whether it’s running or biking and having a set, it’s easy to do on a trainer for those that ride indoors in the winter at 100 Watts and you increase the Watts every three minutes 100, 120, 140, 160, and most apps like TrainerRoad or Swift have standard step tests and them or time trials in them, where you can actually repeat the same tests, six weeks, or you can do it as often as you want, as a means of testing to see whether you’re actually performance is improving. Because really, there’s no point in doing respiratory training unless you’re wanting to improve your performance. So what you should notice is that at the increasing intensities, you have a better control of your breathing, a feeling, an RPE, or a rating of perceived exertion, that it’s easier at that same wattage, and a slower, more efficient breathing pattern. And those are the changes that you should notice with whatever respiratory training program you do. And if you don’t notice a change, then really, it’s up to us as providers of the information to provide you a different training program to get the difference that you need. So if you’re doing a 20-minute time trial, and you’re able to do 40 Watts more six weeks from now, then clearly we’ve made a difference and we’re happy. If you’re riding exactly the same wattage as you did four weeks ago, and it feels exactly the same, and you’re still breathing 60 breaths a minute, and it feels awful, clearly, the training that we’ve supplied, or we’ve recommended hasn’t worked for you and we need to change the training program. I feel really strongly that if you actually dedicate four to six weeks of training to respiratory training, you will notice a difference on a time trial or on a step test or on a VO2 max test, you will notice a difference, you’ll breathe differently and you’ll breathe more efficiently and have improved performance. And all of the literature that’s out there will show the same thing. If you actually strengthen your respiratory system, you will improve your performance. So for athletes that want to have a measurable change, test on the sport that you’re doing, do the respiratory training, test again, and notice a difference. And if you if you’re not noticing difference, send us a letter we’ll respond and we’ll try and help you find solutions to it.
Sonya: I wanted to ask how this applies towards altitude because a lot of people live at sea level. And a lot of people want to go raise places where there’s altitude. I’ve used this to train at altitude and some other protocols that have actually been really helpful. For me, it hasn’t been the same as living at altitude, but there has been a lot of benefit to doing this. So how do you train your respiratory system for altitude?
Luke: So just doing regular Breathe Way training is going to help you cope with extreme altitude shifts, right. So if you’re used to being closer to sea level, and you go up to Leadville, or whatever, your system is going to have to breathe harder to maintain its output. And if your respiratory system is not fit enough for that, then it’s going to be hugely limited by that respiratory system. So by just doing the training before you get there is just going to help you like not be limited by that respiratory muscle coordination when you get there. Then we started looking at the different gases in your blood, right, and how that changes when we go up to altitude, right? When you’re living at altitude, you’re going to probably have a higher hematic rate, which means you have more red blood cells to move oxygen around. That’s a way that the body adapts to the altitude. And so that takes time to occur. There’s no way to speed up that process legally. And so we want to allow people to get that adaptation the way they need to. But one cool thing about using the Breathe Way is that certainly in a scenario where you’re going up to altitude and you’re going to be racing the next morning or whatever, it is going to allow you to sleep better. And so you’ll do a Breathe Way training session before bed, not a hard one, like three to seven minutes long. And what that ends up doing…well let me back up when you go up to altitude when you’re not adapted to be there, your blood oxygen level is going to drop from 98% or 99%, where it’s normal, and it might be closer to like 85% of its high altitude. So now you have to deal with that like chronic load of 85% which is not great, feels bad. So by doing the Breathe Way set before bed, it really saturates you back up to fully oxygenated and then allows you to sleep that off slowly. And so you sleep deeper, a little bit more rested, you wake up the next day, do another set before the start line and your bomb and ready to go. I have a few athletes that are racing things like Breckenridge and Leadville and maybe they’re thinking about it in terms of like their, their transitions, right when they’re stopping for fuel, they’re also going to do like 90 seconds of Breathe Way, just to top off their system before they go again. And so interesting ways of using it both for coping for altitude stress, and then actually preparing for altitude before you get there.
Sonya: Let’s change gears and I have one last question. And it’s probably a question that’s a bigger question that’s hard to answer in a short period of time. But a lot of people are obsessed with the VO2 max or your Garmin says your VO2 Max is this, which I think that’s ridiculous, your Garmin doesn’t know what your VO2 Max is based on a workout that you did, because there’s almost no respiratory data. I don’t know what they’re inferring there. But how does this impact VOtwo Max and do we care?
Dr. Sellars: So, yeah, I’ll take that one. VO2 max is an interesting number. And for those that know me from other things that I’m actively involved with VO2 testing all the time. But that max number is much less important to me from a coaching and performance perspective. However, I do recognize that it’s used in literature all over the place, and it still maintains a fairly strong foothold in the industry. So if you remember what VO2 Max is, it’s the maximum amount of oxygen consumed by the body at the highest performance or highest intensity possible. The respiratory system has a key role in that and to provide the oxygen through the muscle, through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Then it requires the heart to actually pump into the muscles that it requires the muscles to extract it from the system. There is pretty good indication that if you are inefficiently breathing, so if you start to breathe very, very fast, you actually are unable to push to saturate the blood well enough as its pumped through at high speeds to actually saturate and you actually can see some desaturation at very high intensities and people who have inadequate pumps, so that’s bad hearts or inadequate respiratory systems. And so the two are tightly related. If you train your respiratory system become more efficient, slow the breathing down but use bigger volumes…you will able to maintain better oxygen saturations at high blood flows through the lungs and provide higher levels of oxygen to the muscles which will allow a higher VO2 score if that’s what you’re actually really focused on. I’ll just throw in my plug now for limiting your reliance on VO2 as an indicator and look more at what happens with oxygen consumption at lower intensities closer to race pace intensities. There are very few sports where a VO2 max is actually going to benefit and some of those are really limited to shorter track events, 200, 400, 800-meter track events or other events that are similar durations to those. Yeah, less important than people think it is.
Luke: Yeah, one way that we use VO2 to help Ironman athletes, for example, they’re going to be on the bike for four or five hours, is when we find their sort of racing output and we figure out what it’s costing them in terms of VO2. If training is doing its job, then either VO2 stays the same and wattage increases, or VO2 drops at the same wattage. So showing an increase in efficiency. And that’s ultimately what we want is an economy car, right? We’re trying to create a system, that’s using less resources to deliver the same performance.
Sonya: Okay, so yeah, we want to be more efficient, we want to be able to translate this efficiency into our sports so that we can perform better. And you can do that by training your respiratory system and you have the Breathe Way Better as a tool that people can use, it doesn’t actually require that much time and commitment to train this. I mean, like you said, some people even once a week is going to make a difference. You can use it as a warm up so that you can go off the line even harder and faster without blowing yourself up. And you have free training plans. So to me this sounds like a no brainer for people to start doing. I guess my last question is why aren’t more people doing this?
Luke: It’s a great question. We’ve been doing it for, like I said, about two decades almost now and it always seemed like we were like the odd ones out for the longest time and so it’s really fun now that it’s actually starting to grow. You know, we have practitioners all over the planet. Now check out our website for our list of practitioners if you want to hook up with one in your area, but it is it is a growing field and people are learning the benefit of it. You know, for the longest time, I think respiratory system was thought of and still thought of as just this autonomic response to physiologic stress, when for me to just talk to you in this way, I have to time my breath. So I have full control over what’s going on here. And so I can train that system, I can train it better than I can train my heart.
Dr. Sellars: Yeah, I think the limitation in the past has been accessible devices that actually benefit the system. So in the past, the primary device that was used is really expensive, little bit complicated to use, and had a learning curve associated with it. So we’ve tried to address that by making our device affordable and easier to use. The other devices that were used are resistant devices, which have their own challenges to it, because it actually doesn’t allow people to improve range of motions, it really does only focus on one aspect of the respiratory system, which is strength, which may be a limitation for some athletes. But quite often isn’t; it is usually a coordination issue or a volume issue. And those issues are not improved by adding resistance to it, they actually can be made worse by adding resistance. And so a number of products that are inexpensive, have not been shown to be as beneficial. And so people stop using them. So I think we’ve kind of hit it at a good timing, because of more people becoming aware of the respiratory system through books like Breath and Oxygen Advantage, and The Breathing Warrior and The Breathing Cure, which all of focus on the value of improving respiratory system. And I think we’ve finally made a device that’s affordable enough that people will commit to it and it’s easy enough to use that people can actually use it. The other challenge is there’s been a lot of really great athletic endeavors that have been supported by respiratory training. And those athletes didn’t want to share that information because it was a benefit to them that they didn’t want their competitors to know about. And so we’re sorry to those people that we’re going to we’re going to train more people to be actually be competitive. And that’ll be a fun over the next few years to see some of the athletes that we’ve been supporting who have clearly have a respiratory limitation are world class athletes who still have respiratory limitation. And once we help them overcome the respiratory limitation. Be interested to see what’s possible in the future. That’s going to be fun over the next couple of years.
Sonya: I even think about like marathon world records being even faster and all these different things. Great, well, where can people find you find this find? Find Isocap and Breathe Way Better and the two of you if they have any additional questions?
Luke: Yeah, so check us out on our website breathewaybetter.com. We have an Instagram @breathewaybetter. We try to post there daily with all sorts of training tips and educating people on some of the science and having lots of conversations about how respiratory training is that part of everybody’s training and wellbeing kind of moving forward. And then other than that search for us as we’re in your area and certain events, we’re going to be showing up at triathlons and, and symposiums and all sorts of stuff. So we’re out there.
Sonya: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing this information. And there’s so much more that people can learn. And yeah, I’m excited for people to learn about this and start applying it in their own training and in their own lives.