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You lean forward, driving down on to the pedals, legs exploding, chest burning, mouth wide open,
sucking as much air as possible into your hungry lungs. Maybe youre climbing a mountain or locked
onto a Wattbike, but regardless of the activity, as exercise intensity increases, ventilation speeds up to
meet the demands, helping providing oxygen to body tissues and eliminate carbon dioxide. Tidal
volume the depth of each breath increases and breathing rate becomes more rapid. During
exercise, pulmonary ventilation the volume of air inhaled and exhaled every minute may increase
by 600%!
Intense breathing efforts come at a cost; respiratory muscles, like all other skeletal muscles, produce
mechanical work and consume energy. During heavy exercise, the effort of breathing may account for
more than 15% of total oxygen consumption (Dempsey et al, 1996). Its been suggested that rates of
blood flow to the respiratory muscles may equal or even exceed those to the muscles moving the
limbs during peak exercise conditions.
Consequently, scientists have dedicated large amounts of time and resources to exploring whether its
possible to improve the function of respiratory muscles and whether this could enhance exercise


Many inspiratory muscle training (IMT) studies have been conducted, too many to list here, so this
article will cherry-pick a few to illustrate some key points.
In 1998, Caine and McConnell conducted a study in which a group of subjects trained with a device to
increase resistance to inspiration. The resistance was equivalent to 50% of their peak inspiratory
pressure, effectively your 1-rep max for breathing-in. The subjects trained for 30 breaths, twice a day
for 4 weeks. This simple protocol increased inspiratory muscle strength by 31% and inspiratory
muscle endurance by nearly 28%.
Given the large workload of the inspiratory muscles, many researchers have wondered how much
these muscles contributed to the accumulation of blood lactate during intense exercise. In
2008, Brown et al. concluded that training the inspiratory muscles helped to reduce blood lactate
concentrations during whole body exercise.
In 2012, Brown went on to test the effects of IMT on blood lactate and oxygen uptake at the onset of
exercise. Their conclusions suggested that IMT resulted in an increase in the oxidative and/or lactate
transport capacity of the inspiratory muscles. So, its clear that the inspiratory muscles can be trained,
getting stronger for longer, better at oxidising fuel and metabolizing lactate, but could this make us
swifter cyclists or faster runners?


There arent any prizes for stronger lungs, but in 2002, Romer et al. found that IMT significantly
reduced RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion) and improved 20km and 40km cycling time trial
performance, relative to a placebo.
In 2008, Edwards et al. set out to test whether IMT combined with cardiovascular training was more
effective than cardiovascular training alone at improving 5000m run performance. The results were
compelling. Sixteen subjects completed a 4 week cardio programme. Half of the group combined
cardio with daily IMT sessions. Whilst the performance of both groups was enhanced, the IMT groups
performance improved twice as much (-4.3% vs. -2.2%). Interestingly, the researchers suggested that
this was likely due to the fact that IMT significantly reduced the subjects RPE during the performance


RPE is strongly associated with exercise performance if you can make it feel easier, you will
probably go faster! Historically, physiological research has been based on the assumption that fatigue
is mainly a result of running out of energy and/or metabolites accumulating (e.g. blood lactate).
However, increasing evidence is pointing to the brain as a central limiter, reducing our performance
long before energy reserves run out or the tissues experience a chemical catastrophe (Noakes et al.
2004, Lambert et al. 2005).
To suggest that fatigue is mediated by either brain or body in entirety is a false dichotomy; its likely a
combination of both, but in the context of IMT, the fact that this form of training can make exercise feel
easier may be its greatest gift to enhancing human performance.
If the brain perceives that an effort is easier, it will allow the muscles to work harder. In the 2008
Edwards study, the fact the IMT significantly reduced RPE during extended high-intensity exercise
should be of great interest to athletes at all levels.


So if you want to improve your performance through IMT, whats the most effective way to do it? To
start with, you need to purchase an inspiratory muscle training device. In the UK, the market leader
is PowerBreathe. These devices provide resistance to load the inspiratory muscles when breathing.
As your strength increases the load can be increased proportionally, to facilitate progression.
With units starting at around 30, its a very cost effective entry point into the world of IMT. Numerous
studies have demonstrated that a simple protocol of 30 breaths, twice daily for 4-12 weeks, followed
by a maintenance period in which training is reduced by 2/3rds, can significantly improve the strength
and endurance of respiratory muscles associated with enhanced endurance performance and
reduced RPE.


Less well known is the use of IMT whilst exercising. In 2013, Hellyer et al. conducted a study involving
10 subjects carrying out IMT at 40% maximal inspiratory pressure whilst simultaneously performing
aerobic exercise (cycling). Activity in the respiratory muscles significantly increased (measured with
EMG) relative to performing IMT in isolation. These results suggest that combining IMT with cycling
may significantly enhance its training effect.
Practically, this kind of training could be carried out by determining a 1-rep max with a PowerBreathe,
before carrying out the 30 breath protocol at 40% of this whilst riding on a stationary trainer, exercise
or spin bike, perhaps before a conventional training session.


Some takeaway points:

During heavy exercise, pulmonary ventilation may increase by 600%.

Breathing may account for more than 15% of total oxygen consumption.

Inspiratory muscles can be trained, resulting in increased strength, endurance, reduced blood
lactate concentration and RPE.

A simple protocol of 30 breaths, twice daily is sufficient to significantly improve performance.

More advanced trainers may wish to experiment with using IMT during aerobic exercise to
enhance the training effect.