Breathing fast or hyperventilation is a strategy to improve recovery after exercise. But does this also improve performance? Let’s find out!
When exercising at a high intensity, muscles acidify and pH decreases. You probably heard of athletes calling this a buildup of lactic acid.
If you want to keep performing at a high intensity, whether you are working out in the gym or running at a football field, your pH should be kept in balance. While high intensity lowers pH, recovery is the fastest way to increase pH back to normal. You can imagine that the faster your pH is back to normal, the faster you are able to pick up the intensity again.
You can probably also imagine that not every training session or competition event has the possibility to fully recover from previous work done. In that case, the faster you recover in restricted time, the better you will perform in the next set. In training that could mean bigger adaptations. In races that could make the difference between winning and losing.
We already talked about the importance of recovery and how to measure it, and whether you should keep moving or take a full rest between sets and workout days. In this article we will talk about a serious and easy to apply recovery hack: your breath.
How to better balance your pH during exercise? There are several options that work. One of them is eating bicarbonate (baking soda). Your body already contains bicarbonate, which works as an acid buffer. The idea of eating bicarbonate is to be able to buffer more acid and therefore keep pH values high (or less low). Chances are you do get some stomach problems…
An easier tool to use is your breath. Breathing increases pH through CO2 excretion. It therefore counteracts the pH decrease caused by high intensity exercise. But does breathing more, better known as hyperventilation, therefore increase pH more? And would this improve recovery and therefore performance?
A study performed in 2014 looked at the effect of hyperventilation in a 10x 10-second max effort sprint on a stationary bike. Total recovery time was 60 seconds. The hyperventilation group used the last 30 seconds of recovery to hyperventilate at a frequency of 60 breaths per minute (1 breath per second). Try it before you continue reading. The second group breathed normal during the 60 seconds recovery.
The researchers found that hyperventilation “attenuated performance decrements in later exercise bouts”. In other words: off course you will get fatigued after 10x 10-second max efforts. But when you hyperventilate during recovery, your power output will decrease less when comparing to breathing normally.
A more recent study performed in 2020 looked at the effect of hyperventilation on repetitions in bench press and leg press. They let power-trained men perform 6 sets of bench press and 6 sets of leg press at 80% 1RM. Each set was continued until they could not perform the exercise anymore, and contained a rest period of 5 minutes between sets. In some rest periods, athletes used the last 30 seconds to hyperventilate, while in other rest periods they breathed normally.
After a normal rest period, pH was below baseline and athletes performed at least 25% less repetitions than the set before. Which is logic, because exercise decreases pH and you fatigue after a set continued until failure.
After a rest period that included 30 seconds of hyperventilation though, pH increased back to normal values and athletes had no reduction in repetitions or even increased (!) repetitions by 21 to 56%. Movement velocity also increased between 6 to 15% after recovery with hyperventilation.
Conclusion & Future
What a results and what an easy way to get those results! If you do high intensity training, why not try hyperventilation yourself once? If you are more the type of athlete who enjoys slow long-distance events, you probably experience less positive results of hyperventilation, because your kind of exercise results in less pH fluctuation then HIT workouts.
If only we could measure blood pH without using a needle… We then could easily measure whether we should try hyperventilation to increase pH. We could also see how long we should hyperventilate to get back to pre-exercise pH values. Any suggestions? Let us know!
Would you like to read more about recovery? Check all recovery content!
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Founder of Molab, Human Movement Scientist and a sports enthusiast.