Canadian Lung Association Blog

Breathing Towards Victory: How Olympians Use their Lungs

olympics-84221_1920As the Olympic torch arrives in Rio, elite athletes will get ready for performances of a lifetime. During the days that follow, we will hold our breath as we watch our athletes perform, exhale with relief as the athletes finish a feat and shout in exhilaration as medals are hung around the necks.

But as we breathe together with our athletes, our athletes breathe even deeper. Elite athletes must use their lungs more effectively than any of us.

Oxygen powers performance. This is true for all level of athletes. Each of us can exercise to increase the volume of our lungs. The more we expand our lung capacity, the faster oxygen moves through our system. But elite athletes, unsurprisingly, rely on their breath for endurance and energy even more so. It is the engine that determines the level of performance their muscles will deliver.

Much like one needs to know the possible maximum strength one can expect from a battery, coaches and athletes too must know their potential. Training and genetics work in sync in reaching this maximum potential. But just like there are limits to what an AA battery can power, there are limitations to one’s fitness potential.

The maximum volume of oxygen one can consume is referred to as VO2 Max. The more oxygen an athlete can inhale, the better the performance potential. While there are other factors that determine VO2 Max or the training thereof, such as genetics, age and fitness baseline, training can generally increase this maximum to a certain level.

The more oxygen athletes can use during performance, the more energy they can put out. However, this is only one half of the equation. The second part of this is the efficiency with which the athlete uses this oxygen. Let’s equate VO2  to a tool belt. While two people might have the same tools in their tool belt (same VO2 max), it is their skills and ability to use these that will eventually determine the result. It’s how one uses the tools one is given. The same can be said for athletes. So let’s take a deep breath and root for Team Canada.

For more information about the respiratory system, visit www.lung.ca.

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