Part of Chapter Six: Gaining the Edge – Naturally
The Oxygen Advantage® By Patrick McKeown
Erythropoietin, often known as EPO, is a hormone secreted by the kidneys in response to reduced oxygen levels in the blood. One of the functions of EPO is stimulating the maturation of red blood cells in the bone marrow, increasing oxygen delivery to muscles. Breath holding as demonstrated in The Oxygen Advantage® is an effective way of stimulating the release of EPO, allowing you to fuel your blood with increased levels of oxygen and enhance your sports performance. Concentration of EPO can increase by as much as 24% when the body is subjected to lower oxygen levels using breath hold exercises.
A clear example of the relationship between breath holding and EPO production can be found in those suffering from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition involving involuntary holding of the breath after exhalation during sleep. Depending on the severity, the sleeper may hold his breath from 10-80 seconds and this may occur from 5-70 times an hour. During sleep apnea, the saturation of the blood with oxygen can reduce from normal levels of 98% to as low as 50%. The result of these reduced oxygen levels can cause an increase in EPO of 20%.
Of course, there is quite a difference between the condition of sleep apnea and the practice of breath holding to enhance sports performance. However, it is interesting to note the effect of breath holding (both voluntary and involuntary) on the production of natural EPO. Increasing EPO levels allows the blood to deliver greater amounts of oxygen to the muscles and is the natural equivalent of the illegal blood doping methods seen at the beginning of this chapter. The benefit of using breath holding as a performance enhancing exercise is that, unlike sleep apnea, conscious breath holding allows you to keep complete control over the frequency and duration of each hold. And, unlike blood doping, the EPO you produce using simple breathing techniques is free, effective and legal.
Part of Chapter Seven: Bring the Mountain to You
The Science of Simulating High-Altitude and High-Intensity Exercise
In the following sections we will learn how breath holding techniques allow us to simulate many of the positive benefits of high-altitude and high-intensity training, including:
- The release of red blood cells, improving oxygenation of the muscles
- The production of natural EPO
- A higher tolerance of carbon dioxide
- Reduced stress and fatigue of working muscles
- Improved psychological preparedness
- Improved recovery time
- Reduced lactic acid
- Improved swimming technique
- The ability to maintain fitness during rest or injury
- Maintenance of the above benefits without the need to travel to high altitudes
When we hold our breath, changes occur in the body to compensate for the reduction in oxygen. Oxygen pressure is lowered, causing the spleen to release red blood cells and the kidneys to produce EPO. These two elements help to improve oxygenation of the blood and therefore our capacity for exercise.
A number of studies have sought to understand the significant role that breath holding can play in adapting the body for increased oxygen delivery with researchers investigating the effects of breath hold diving in native divers, professional divers and untrained divers.
The spleen is an organ which acts as a blood bank; when the body signals an increased demand for oxygen, the spleen releases stores of red blood cells. It therefore plays a very important role in regulating blood hematocrit (the percentage of red blood cells in the blood), as well as hemoglobin concentration.
Provoking the body to release additional red blood cells and increase the concentration of hemoglobin in the blood improves the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to working muscles during exercise. Breath hold studies involving volunteers without spleens removed demonstrate just how vital this organ is in changing the composition of the blood. After a series of short breath holding exercises, those with spleens intact showed an increase in hematocrit and hemoglobin concentration of 6.4% and 3.3% respectively, while those without spleens showed no alterations in blood composition at all. This means that after as few as five breath holds, the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood can be significantly improved with the help of the spleen.
This organ also influences how long a person can hold their breath for. In one study, participants were able to achieve their longest breath hold on their third attempt. Breath hold divers reached a total of 143 seconds, untrained divers reached 127 seconds, and splenectomised volunteers achieved 74 seconds. Not only that but spleen size decreased by a total of 20% in both breath hold divers and the untrained volunteers, demonstrating a rapid contraction of the spleen in response to the reduction of oxygen. What this means is that breath holding ability improves with repetition as the spleen contracts, releasing additional red blood cells into circulation and improving oxygenation carrying capacity of the body. While these studies generally include subjects holding their breath for as long as possible, significant splenic contraction has been found to take place with even very short breath holds of 30 seconds. However, the strongest contractions of the spleen, and therefore the greatest changes to blood composition, are shown following maximum breath holds.
Another useful piece of information gleaned from these studies is that it is not necessary to immersed in water to benefit from the effects of breath hold diving. There seems to be no discernible difference between the increase of hematocrit and hemoglobin concentration in volunteers practising breath holds in and out of water. Since there is no visible increase in the results of breath holding with the face immersed in water, it can be concluded that it is the breath hold itself that stimulates splenic contraction. In other words, it is not being underwater that causes the spleen to release red blood cells into circulation but the simple drop of oxygen pressure in the blood resulting from holding of the breath. Therefore, the benefits of breath holding are not limited to divers and swimmers. This is of particular relevance to the Oxygen Advantage® program as our breath hold exercises are performed out of water.
The relevance of the above studies suggests that effects similar to those achieved with high-altitude training can be obtained at sea-level simply by performing a series of breath holds. Provoking the spleen to contract by reducing the availability of oxygen causes an increase in hemoglobin and hematocrit, which in turn increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood and improves aerobic ability. The most appealing aspect of breath holding is that it is feasible to most individuals and is not as taxing on the body as high-intensity exercise. Performing just 3-5 breath holds of maximum duration can lead to a 2-4% increase in hemoglobin. This might not sound like much, but where a fraction of a second can determine the difference between the winner and the loser, every possible advantage counts.
Part of Chapter Eight: Finding the Zone
Considered the greatest moment in 20th century boxing, the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle pitted undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman against challenger Muhammed Ali. The event was organised by boxing promoter Don King and sponsored by the King of Zaire with the promise of a major purse to the winner.
No one thought Muhammed Ali had much of a chance in beating Foreman. After all, Foreman was both younger and larger than Ali, and considered the strongest fighter of his generation – no previous opponent had lasted more than three rounds with him. But Ali had more than just speed and strength – he used psychology and tactics to his advantage. During the early rounds of the fight Ali toyed with Foreman by frequently leaning on the ropes and covering himself up, leading Foreman to throw ineffective body punches and tire himself out. By the seventh round Ali turned to taunting, goading the weary Foreman with jibes like: “They told me you could punch!” And: ”That all you got, George?”
In the eighth round Ali saw his moment and took it, landing a strong left hook and hard right. Foreman, weakened by a combination of fatigue and distraction, stumbled to the canvas, and though he managed to get up at the count of nine, the referee called the bout to an end. Muhammad Ali, a master in psychology, won the title by knockout.
Very few people could have expected this outcome. Both fighters were equally motivated to win, but while Foreman was the stronger and more experienced combatant, Ali’s constant barrage of taunts would have played a significant role in undermining Foreman’s mental strength, causing his concentration to lapse and allowing him to lose his temper – the opportunity Ali needed to strike. By pulling his opponent out of ‘the zone’, Ali created an opening for himself, overcoming all the odds. And that’s all it takes – just one distraction can dramatically alter the outcome of any event. Often athletes are deprived of success not because of lack of skill, fitness or stamina, but by their own thoughts.
When looking back on a disappointing performance, most athletes will comment that their head ‘just wasn’t in it’. Training the mind to be in the flow is just as vital as training the body. As any athlete knows, one thought is all it takes to divert attention from the task at hand, ruining the shot, penalty, race, or putt. But while in the flow, distracting thoughts do not enter. The shouts of opposing spectators are not heard, a mistake made during the game is not ruminated on, and thoughts of past mistakes or of future goals do not arise. There is no fear of losing. There is no expectation of winning. You are not anxious about actions or reactions from opponents but effortlessly perform to the best of your ability. Nothing else matters. You are present, using the full concentration of your mind in a state of undivided attention.
‘Going with the flow’ is a term first coined by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago. Csíkszentmihályi described ‘flow’ as the experience of “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. Self-consciousness falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”1 This mental state is also sometimes described as being in the ‘zone’ or ‘present moment’.
Flow is a state of concentration that allows for complete immersion in the situation at hand. Being in the flow means that no boundaries exist between you and the activity in which you are involved. The player and the game become one. The ego – which is the fictitious story that we create about ourselves – is left behind. Thoughts cease and the athlete acts spontaneously. Any sense of self-consciousness is set aside, allowing full concentration and focus to be obtained. While in the flow, instinct and intuition take over and the right action happens automatically, without the need for conscious thought.
When in the flow you do not think about how good you are, or how useless you are, or what the spectators think of you, or what you are going to do tomorrow, or what your hair looks like. The usual repetitive nonsense generated by the active Western mind ceases. Concentration – the ability to focus unhindered by distracting thoughts – is at its highest. In such a state of intense concentration, your complete attention can be devoted to the game.
Being in the flow allows for a still, quiet mind, undistracted by conscious thoughts. It is a state which involves the use of the entire brain rather than just the logical processes of the left brain. Being in the flow is the very antithesis of Western education, whose sole purpose is to develop and nurture the analytical, reasoning and logical brain.
You will no doubt have experienced the feeling of an activity taking up all your attention and focus to the point where you forget everything else around you. When you are truly engaged in creative endeavours like sports, writing, painting, music and drama, many hours can pass by unnoticed. The dancer and the dance become one. The painter and the painting become one. The runner and the race become one.