Science / Boost Your Repeated Sprint Ability

Boost Your Repeated Sprint Ability

by Patrick McKeown

How Breathing Techniques Set You Ahead of the Game

  • Hypoxia – blood oxygen saturation of below 90%.
  • High altitude training – training at high elevation (where atmospheric oxygen pressure is low).
  • Achieve hypoxia using controlled breath holding,
  • Incorporate breath holds into your sprint speed workout to improve repeated sprint performance.
Repeated Sprint Ability

Unconventional Training Secrets of Olympic Champion Emil Zátopek

The year is 1952. The setting, Helsinki Olympic Games. Emil Zátopek, the runner known as the Czech Locomotive, has already claimed gold in the 5,000 and 10,000-meter events. He decides to enter the marathon. Zátopek has never run a marathon. But he wins. Coming in 2 minutes before his nearest competitor and breaking the record by 6 minutes. If you watch footage of his victory, he speeds up towards the finish line. He’s not even out of breath at the end of the race.

How did he do it?

Zátopek was a bit of a wild card. He was one of the first athletes known to practice holding his breath during exercise. He would set a distance, using a marker such as a tree, and hold his breath till he reached that marker. Once, his breath hold was so long he passed out.

The Czech runner was ahead of the field in more ways than one. In 1968, Mexico hosted the Olympics. Sports scientists became interested in high altitude training. They began to explore how hypoxia could boost sprint performance.

Zátopek was a distance runner. We’ve already looked at aerobic and anaerobic endurance in our Science series. But we now know, breath holding can enhance repeated sprint ability. Repeated sprint training is vital for team sport athletes like rugby players and soccer players. Strength, power and overcoming exercise intolerance is important. But the intermittent sprints are crucial to the outcome of the game. Sprinting is anaerobic exercise. Meaning team sports demand your most intensive performance. Repeatedly and reliably. Sprint power and fatigue can mean a game won or lost.

What Happens When You Hold Your Breath During Exercise?

Well, as Emil Zátopek aptly demonstrated, one of the things that can happen is that you pass out. If you get hypoxia wrong, it can be unsafe. But practiced in a controlled way, breath holding gives a competitive advantage.


The Bottom Line

When you add hypoxia to your sprint speed workout, you can boost power and speed, and delay fatigue. Repeated sprint ability is a key determinant in team sports, cycling and other competitive events. Practice the Oxygen Advantage® high altitude simulation exercises. Your repeat sprint performance will improve.

…Back again to 1952. And as Emil Zátopek runs across the marathon finish line, his face splits into a smile of sheer satisfaction.

With all the power you need to make that last sprint, you’ll understand exactly how good he must have felt.

What the Scientists Say about Repeated Sprint Ability

Over the past few years, it has been shown that repeated sprint ability could be improved when it is performed in hypoxia.

DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2018.1431312.  European Journal of Sport Science · January 2018

Repeated sprint ability (RSA), which represents the ability to reproduce performance during maximal or near maximal efforts interspersed with brief recovery intervals, is considered a key factor in team sports. In sport disciplines such as rugby or soccer, the ability to recover and to repeat sprints is an important fitness requirement. It may for instance influence the final outcome of a game by giving the possibility to win possession of the ball or by preventing the opponents from scoring.

To include the sessions into normal training practice, two usual weekly sessions involving high intensity training were not practised.

Over a four week period, 21 highly trained players from Rugby Union performed 7 sessions of repeated forty metre sprints either with normal breathing or with breath holding after an exhalation. Performance of the players was assessed pre and post training with a repeated sprint ability test which involves all out 40meter sprint with a departure every 30 seconds until task failure.

Following the four weeks of training, the number of sprints performed by the players who practised sprinting after a breath hold significantly increased (9.1 versus 14.9). There was no change in the group who trained as normal: (9.8 versus 10.4)

The average drop to blood oxygen saturation was 90% in the breath hold group and 95.5% in the normal training group. The researchers concluded that sprinting with breath holding following an exhalation appears to be an effective strategy to improve running repeated sprint ability in team sport players.

2020 research found that repeated sprinting during hypoxia improves tennis performance. Time to exhaustion reduced by 18% and lactic acid threshold increased. Also, players showed much better ball accuracy at 100% of VO2 max (Brechbuhl et al., 2020).

A 2020 case study published in Frontiers in Sport and Active Living showed positive results in cycling. The cyclists’ power greatly increased while average heart rate stayed the same. This trial used a special hypoxic chamber, but research has shown that’s not necessary.

In 2019 scientists published a review in the German Journal of Sports Medicine. It says repeated sprint workout in hypoxia leads to better repeated sprint ability. It includes hypoxia from breath holding or what’s called “voluntary hypoventilation.” Runners had faster mean sprint times, higher power outputs and better fatigue resistance (Millet et al., 2019).

Research from 2018 found marked improvements in professional rugby players. The players had practiced their sprint speed workouts using breath holding after exhalation. They achieved an average blood oxygen saturation of 90%. Which means they were sprinting in hypoxia.

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