| Flex the Lungs for Performance Gains

Author / Tim Cummings

4-6 minute read

The summer is finally here. You’ve got the next 8 to 12 weeks to make some real progress in the gym as you get ready for fall sports. You know you need to get stronger, faster, and maybe even more flexible. But what about your conditioning? Are you dreading the pre-season conditioning test? Are you the athlete that’s strong as an ox, cut like a Greek god, and yet your coach calls you a “quitter” because you can never keep up during the runs (or swims)? 

Training that revolves around strength, power, and sprinting can miss the most foundational piece of the performance puzzle: oxygen delivery. Fatigue can set in quickly once the game begins and will rob you of your ability to express the traits you worked so hard to build in the gym. Fatigue will make you feel like you’ve got to bear down, try harder, and grit it out, but these strategies won’t be enough to improve your performance. It’s likely you haven’t been taught one of the most basic means of harnessing your physiology to combat fatigue and express your athleticism on the field. 

Take A Breath

Put simply, you need to learn how to train your pulmonary system. Also known as the respiratory system, this part of your body includes your airways, lungs, diaphragm, and ribs. The development and function of your pulmonary system can be influenced by asthma, allergies, infections, aging, and even whether you were a full-term or premature baby when you were born. The good news is, like the muscles you work so hard on in the weight room, your pulmonary system can be trained to take in and deliver more oxygen to the body. Oxygen in working muscles is like fuel for a fire: it helps you maintain your performance level and recover more quickly between efforts in the gym or on the field. 

I once thought that all I needed to do was go harder when I hopped on the Assault Bike, and that my lack of conditioning was simply due to a lack of mental toughness. After years of research and practical application with thousands of clients, I’ve found an easier way to help improve aerobic fitness and increase the body’s ability to express athleticism.

The Best Air Bender

How can you harness the power of your pulmonary system?

I would advise against buying any sort of contraption that makes you look like Bane, or even buying a fancy spirometry trainer. The best recommendation is to start paying attention to your warm-ups and integrating a simple practice to help develop your respiratory muscles. If you’re new to this practice, all you need to do to start implementing it for 5-15 minutes at the beginning of every training session and you’ll soon see the carryover on the field.

What it is, you ask? Shut your mouth. Seriously. Start breathing through your nose as you hop on the bike, run around the track, and go through your warm-ups. In my practice, we call our running warm-ups “Nasal Runs.” As you run while inhaling and exhaling only through your nose, you may feel like your nose is getting clogged up. That is your body’s natural response to heating up: blood flow is transferred to your nasal passages to help you stay cool.  If you’re over-amped and going too hard through your warm-up, it’s not going to take long for those swelling nasal passages to make you feel like you’re drowning. This is a good time to check in with yourself. If your warm-up has always been a half-assed arm and leg swinging social gathering, this practice will get you tuned in to perform better under the bar and compete on the field or court. Learning to control your breathing will help you better control your performance. 

Simply shutting your mouth and learning to breathe properly through your nose and diaphragm during warm-ups will start to train and strengthen your breathing muscles. You’re doing it right if you feel your belly filling with air; you’re doing it wrong if your shoulders rise up towards your ears when you inhale. If you’ve previously ​​found yourself gasping for air and searching for the strength you built in the weight room come game day, this practice will change your story. When you show up to compete, you’ll be able to be in control and execute at the highest level while your opponents struggle to keep pace.

Don’t be the player that squats 400 in the weight room but can’t go 4 plays before dropping below 50% of your output because you can’t catch your breath. The next time you watch a football game, watch for the camera to focus on the players in the huddle between plays. You can spot the poor breathers instantly when you see their shoulders heaving up and down. A lineman who squats 400 pounds but drops to 30% of lung capacity after a series of plays is only capable of expressing 130 pounds of force on the next play if he can’t recover efficiently. 

When you step on the field or court, you want to know you’ve trained your body to perform to its highest level. Remember, hope is not a strategy. Instead of praying that your training will translate to better performance, take charge of your breathing during your training and reap the rewards of a fully developed respiratory system.

Empower Your (Lung) Performance

Now that you understand the importance of training your respiratory system and how to start integrating it into your training, take advantage of Power Athlete’s best-in-class training programs.  Check out our foundational program for novice athletes, Bedrock, or our advanced training for the seasoned athlete, Field Strong, and take the next step in becoming the dominant athlete you want to be. Both of these programs come programmed with customized warm-up routines designed to get your mind and body right for the training day; now you can get those lungs right too!

RELATED CONTENT

PODCAST: Episode 572-Hyperbarics Part Deux with Dr. Joe Dituri

BLOG: Breath as the Driver to Stability, Part 1: Diaphragm & Pelvic Floor Connections by Emily Splichal

BLOG: Integrating the Pelvic Floor into Performance by Matthew Zanis

YOUTUBE: Maximizing Performance Through Nasal Breathing w/ NFL Athlete Brian Peters

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SOURCES

White MD, Cabanac M. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. Nasal mucosal vasodilatation in response to passive hyperthermia in humans. 1995;70(3):207-12.

AUTHOR

Tim Cummings

Tim received his Bachelors of Arts in Exercise Science from the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 2004, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from Southwest Baptist University in 2010. He has worked with the Titleist Performance Institute, the IMPACT concussion group, MovNat, and The Ready State in his professional career. Currently owns and operates a performance-based physical therapy practice, Restore/Thrive, with his wife in their home garage gym in Overland Park, Kansas, and became a Power Athlete Block One Coach in September 2020.
Dr. Cummings utilizes his PT background and the Power Athlete Methodology to optimize performance, reduce injury risk, and rehab his clients and athletes through movement assessment, coaching, and individualized program design.

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