The weather is getting nicer outside, so you and your family decide to go for a hike. You’re loving the outdoors and family time, but halfway through your hike you have to stop because you can’t catch your breath. Or perhaps you’ve always wanted to run a half marathon, but your legs feel like they’re going to explode when you hit mile 8 every time you try to extend yourself. Maybe you’ve been dealing with pain in your shoulder for years, you’ve seen your doctor, you’ve done all of the therapy you’ve been told to do and your shoulder still hurts.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?
One aspect of your health that you may not have considered until now is the way your body moves and uses oxygen. We have all been told how important breathing and oxygen is to our health, but rarely is it explained why these things matter, or more importantly, what we can do about them.
If you’d like to become more physically active outside of the gym, or if you’re looking to improve athletic performance, or if you’ve been searching for answers to nagging injuries- the limiting factor in any of these scenarios may very well be how you’re moving or using oxygen as a fuel source. Your working muscles need a steady supply of blood flow and oxygen in order to maintain your effort, and your ability to do so is going to be most limited by one of three primary mechanisms:
- Respiratory limitation
- Delivery limitation
- Utilization limitation
The air outside of your body is oxygen-rich. In order to draw this oxygen-rich air into your body, muscles such as your diaphragm contract, expanding the area of your chest which surrounds your lungs. This is called inhalation. The incoming air fills your lungs, and oxygen diffuses from your lungs into your blood stream. When your diaphragm relaxes and other nearby muscles contract, air is pushed out of your lungs, back out into the environment around you. This is called exhalation and the combination of these two processes form the essence of respiration. Both inhalation and exhalation are extremely important, and if either is weak or lacks endurance, you will experience what we call a respiratory limitation.
Once your lungs do their job by putting oxygen into your blood, it is the job of your cardiovascular system to deliver that oxygen-rich blood to your body’s vital organs, including the muscular system. This process can be restricted by a number of factors, including how quickly your heart beats, how much blood leaves your heart with each stroke, as well as the amount of resistance to blood flow that exists elsewhere in the body. Any one or a combination of these factors can contribute to a delivery limitation.
The last stop for our oxygen molecule as it makes it way through your bloodstream is the target tissue, which could include your internal organs or in this example, your working muscle. As blood reaches the working muscle, oxygen is delivered to the muscle cell where the cell’s mitochondria take that oxygen muscle and use it to create chemical energy for that muscle to perform the task you’re requiring. An inability of the muscular system to effectively and efficiently take oxygen out of the blood and put it to use within the muscle cell is called a utilization limitation.
Any one of these systems could be a potential limiter when it comes to successfully performing physical activity. More importantly, once you’ve identified your primary limiter, the way that you approach your training will likely change to some extent. If you’ve determined that you’re respiratory limited, this is your lowest hanging fruit and as such we want to immediately address your respiratory limitation with specific training protocols. These respiratory protocols may be completely different than the type of training we’d implement in the case of a delivery or utilization limitation.
As always, it’s better to assess than to guess! From there, we can help you develop a specific training program to help you live a more fulfilling life outside of the gym and achieve any physical activity related goals you have.