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High Altitude Performance: Train your respiratory muscles

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For four weeks leading up to an expedition, fourteen climbers volunteered to take part in a study on inspiratory muscle training (IMT). During the expedition and at the Base Camp at over 16,000 feet, their arterial oxygen saturation was recorded to have desaturated by only 14%, compared to the others who had not partook in the training who were recorded to have desaturated by 20%.

Your lungs are muscles too
While it used to be that a person had to live at altitude to get adapted to it, researches have now shown that training the respiratory muscles can actually teach one to perform better with less oxygen. The idea behind the training is that through training the diaphragm and intercostal muscles around the ribcage, which consumes energy and fatigues just like the hamstrings or biceps, it helps muscles get stronger to deal with altitude.

This training originated with patients suffering from breathing-related conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and consists of simple exercises such as breathing through a tube of variable resistance that makes it harder to inhale and repeating it for 30 times a day.

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Using the same IMT, although it doesn’t directly change speed or endurance of an athlete, it affects how altitude feels nonetheless. At altitude, breathing takes a higher proportion of the overall energy, consuming 20% – 30% more oxygen by 9,000 feet so the breathing muscles fatigue more quickly. As oxygen is precious as it is rare at high altitudes, the concept of a lower oxygen desaturation only proves to be beneficial to athletes.

However, at the moment, only more researches will tell of exactly how and if IMT boosts high-altitude performance, although it has been recorded that those who have tried it never feel out of breath during exercise and even though they can feel other muscles fatigue and they have to slow down, they are never panting at least.

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