By Hannah Alderfer, BA, CPT, FMSC, & breathing expert!
You’ve felt it before. Lungs searing, heart racing, sweat pouring down. You can’t take much more and your body gradually slows down until you mentally say “no more” and stop. As an endurance athlete, I’m always intrigued by the challenge of my sport. What are the limits of the human body? Who can go the fastest, the farthest, endure the longest? There are a lot of variable components involved in a great performance, be it during a running race, another athletic event, or simply in the gym on a piece of cardio equipment or doing a high intensity workout, but one you may not have heard of is the metaboreflex.
In healthy individuals, the body has a safety mechanism that will prevent you from exercising to the point of fatal exhaustion – when the heart and lungs have reached their full capacity. This line of safety is the point where you cannot go on, but really your heart and lungs could handle a little more. Scientists have discovered a system they’ve termed the Central Governor Theory, where your brain responds to a series of events happening in the body involving respiratory rate and cardiovascular activity. Everything is monitored by the brain and then, according to Dr. Eric Cobb (one of the world’s leading experts in harnessing the power of the neurology of movement to create extraordinary change in the human body), “As it streams this data, it compares actual versus expected measures and then manipulates motor output, posture, respiration, heart rate and a host of other responses in the body.” When the body begins to show signs of nearing the complete exhaustion of its cardiovascular and respiratory capacities – AKA death – the brain kicks in the metaboreflex.
The metaboreflex is “a centrally governed blood-shunting reflex” (this means that it’s triggered by your brain). It takes blood from the farthest points of the body and pushes it to the respiratory muscles as an attempt to bring their function back to normal. The blood flow that was once supplying your leg, arm, and core muscles with oxygen and nutrients and clearing out byproducts, is no longer doing so. What this does to the rest of the body is what eventually forces you to stop. Suddenly your movements seem less fluid, each movement takes more effort as energy is wasted and fatigue sets in. Studies have shown that most often, “the peripheral musculature is stronger and more resilient than the respiratory muscles themselves. When an athlete with this type of strength imbalance reaches the anaerobic threshold, the metaboreflex activates.” To counterbalance the metaboreflex, you can simply work on making your respiratory strength last longer. By increasing the strength of your respiratory muscles and your awareness of your breathing technique, you will be able to work at a lower percentage of their maximum capacity, increase their endurance, delay their fatigue, and have a lower perceived exertion. So if you’d like to improve upon your endurance performance you can start by working on a few of the exercises below. And who knows, maybe this is the key to breaking the infamous 2-hour marathon time!
*Follow these instructions for better breathing techniques (and hopefully improved performance!):
- Perform this exercise either seated or supine.
- Keep the head and neck in neutral.
- Take two fast full breaths in through the nose, using a controlled exhale through the mouth.
- Next, take two fast full breaths in through the mouth, again using a controlled exhale through the mouth.
- The point of the exercise is to notice the difference in speed of air intake and relative “comfort” level with switching between the nose and mouth.
Once you are comfortable with this exercise, it’s time to move on to the diaphragm awareness/stretch exercises.
- Perform this exercise supine, with arms overhead.
- Perform a posterior pelvic tilt (tailbone tucked).
- Inhale fully, focusing on allowing the abdomen to expand.
- Next, open your mouth and throat and create a forceful, deep exhale.
- When you think you have reached the end of your exhalation capacity, exhale even more deeply, feeling for a deep stretch in your upper lumbar and low-to-mid thoracic spine.
- Perform 3-5 repetitions of this drill each day for 1-2 weeks before moving on to stretch #2.
- Perform this exercise supine, begin with arms by your side.
- Perform a posterior pelvic tilt (tailbone tucked).
- Inhale fully as you raise your arms to the overhead position while simultaneously performing a standard bridge WITHOUT LOSING the posterior pelvic tilt (tailbone tucked).
- In the top position, open your mouth and throat and create a forceful, deep exhale.
- Once you’ve reached the end of your full exhale, maintain the exhale as you return to the ground. Try to widen your lower ribs as you do this.
- You should be feeling for a deep stretch in your upper lumbar and low-to-mid thoracic spine.
- When performed correctly this will create a “vacuum” effect in the abdomen, deeply stretching the diaphragm while allowing for abdominal relaxation.
- Perform 3-5 repetitions of this drill daily.
(*Exercises from Dr. Eric Cobb, the creator and co-founder of Z-Health and one of the world’s leading experts in harnessing the power of the neurology of movement to create extraordinary change in the human body.)