Dropping pH values in the body have long been associated with reduced performance. There are many reasons that a more acidic environment can have this effect, not the least of which is that the body essentially operates with a series of chemical locks and keys whose shapes are altered when pH changes. Try to change the shape of your car key and see what happens. It stops working.
The body deals with reduced pH levels in a few ways. One such way is through good old fashioned breathing, and it’s one of the reasons why you breathe hard when you exercise. Bicarbonate bonds with hydrogen ions, creating carbonic acid, which is then turned into water and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the stuff you breathe out when you exhale. In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers wanted to know if purposeful hyperventilation – basically forcing yourself to breathe hard – would improve performance through a greater maintenance of acid.
Hyperventilation isn’t the only way to do this. Consuming a bicarbonate like baking soda can chemically perform a similar task, but results are mixed for timing and amount, and most people experience gastrointestinal upset as a result. Hyperventilation, on the other hand, can be performed at any time, by any athlete.
So the only question becomes whether or not it actually works. To find the answer, the researchers use repeated sprints on a bike to induce acidosis, the state in which the body’s pH isn’t ideal. In between each bout, there was a sixty second rest, in which the participants would either breathe normally, or purposely hyperventilate for the last thirty seconds with forced breaths every second.
Sure enough, the hyperventilation helped. The pH of the blood was increased by hyperventilation, meaning there was less acid. Not only that, but performance also improved. For both peak and average power outputs, the results took similar twists and turns. For both groups and for both peak and average power, the second bout of sprints showed a drop-off. The third showed a comeback, followed by a declining performance from the fourth bout on. However, this decline was attenuated big time by hyperventilation, where the drop-off in performance from the fourth round forward was not so bad.
Personally, I also use hyperventilation before a strength set and it works. I can usually get another clean rep or two if I use this method, but probably for different reasons, like increased oxygenation of the blood, or stimulation of the nervous system. However, before this study I hadn’t used hyperventilation to improve performance on repeated bouts of cardio exercise.
And there you have it, hyperventilation works. Not only will it improve your sprinting and interval performances, but may also boost your resistance training as well. Give it a try and watch your PRs benefit from it.
1. Akihiro Sakamoto, et al., “Hyperventilation as a strategy for improved repeated sprint performance,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a1fe5c
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