Rowing training: breathing techniques

A critical look at the way rowers breathe:

Within the last five years, increasing scientific attention has been paid to the lung function of rowers. In most sports, even endurance sports, it is not the performance of the lungs that is the limiting factor to improvements in overall performance; rowers, on the other hand, because of the enormous amounts of oxygen required by their muscles, may be more susceptible than most to limits in performance caused by inadequate lung function. Maximal ventilation rates of rowers have been observed at up to 240 litres per minute of air transported in and out of the lungs. To put this in perspective, a typical value for an untrained male would be between 100-150 litres per minute during maximal exercise. Whether all rowers could achieve such a high ventilation rate is questionable, and yet it could be advantageous to do so.

Recent work by Faulman et al (‘A comparison between lung function analysis and a rowing performance test in élite and club standard rowers’, Journal of Sports Sciences, 1996, vol. 14, no. 1, p. 81) has added to the growing evidence that élite rowers have superior lung function compared to club rowers. A complicating factor in all this is that the respiratory muscles are also used in the actual force production during the rowing stroke, as well as for breathing itself. As a result, the breathing pattern has to be synchronised with the stroke rate, and two breathing patterns have been identified to meet the demands of different rowing speeds. They are:

  1. one expiration during the stroke and one inspiration during recovery, and
  2. one complete breath during stroke and one during recovery (Steinacker et al, ‘Pulmonary mechanics and entrainment of respiration and stroke rate during rowing’, International Journal of Sports Medicine, 1993, vol. 14 (Suppl 1), pp S15-S19).

The research team of Smith et al (‘Respiratory responses of élite oarsmen, former oarsmen and highly-trained non-rowers during rowing, cycling and running’, European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 1994, vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 44-49) found that it was only élite oarsmen who could maintain a similar ventilation rate during maximal rowing as during cycling and running, and they suggested that this was possibly the effect of years of training that had slowly overcome the problem of the rowing stroke’s interference with breathing patterns. Unfortunately, it appears that the training responses of the respiratory muscles are relatively small and slower to achieve in comparison to typical upper and lower body skeletal muscles, and the key to training them might simply be months and years of hard toil. Having said that, even with the limited training effects on maximal ventilation rates, a faster improvement does seem to come in how long a submaximal breathing rate can be maintained, and this is obviously promising. Specific training regimes to improve lung function have yet to be recommended, but if the evidence suggesting that lung function is the limit to performance continues to grow, this may be only a matter of time.

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