Manufacturers of respiratory training devices claim they can dramatically improve athletic performance with minimal effort. Will these gadgets unleash performance, or are they too good to be true?
Respiratory training devices (RTDs) are marketed as “dumbbells for your diaphragm” and have continued to gain popularity with athletes.lactate) threshold.
Respiratory training devices look like inhalers. They are designed to make it harder to breathe as a way to strengthen your lung muscles. As you breathe in and out of the device, you activate muscles like the diaphragm and the intercostals (located between the ribs).
The logic that sells RTDs usually sounds something like, “You train your legs and your arms...why don’t you train your lungs?”
Manufacturers of these devices, like Powerbreathe Aerofit, claim that with as little time spent as 8 to 10 minutes a day you can “boost your performance by up to 8% within 8 weeks.”
Eight percent?!? That’s an impressive gain--especially when the only thing required is 10 minutes of couch time.
Could RTDs be an effortless way to see considerable increases in performance, or does it sound too good to be true?
Let’s take a look at the research.
For the benefits of RTDs to hold water, a few things must be true:
One study, in particular, seems to demonstrate that there is a scientific basis for using RTDs to improve athletic performance.
A small study set out to learn whether the increased performance benefits seen in studies of RTDs was attributable to an increase in exercise, rather than the respiratory trainer.
To figure this out, researchers observed the cycling endurance of 37 sedentary participants. Thirteen subjects underwent respiratory training, nine participated in aerobic endurance training (cycling or running), while 15 controls remained sedentary.
After 15 weeks, researchers found meaningful endurance improvement in both the aerobic training group and the respiratory training group compared to the control.
These results suggest that increased athletic performance due to respiratory muscle training is not due to exercise. (Markov, et. al.)
According to this study, the strength of the respiratory system is a limiting factor in exercise performance. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that respiratory trainers may benefit athletes.
Despite the findings of Markov, research surrounding respiratory muscle training varies. Some studies have shown significant improvements in either time to exhaustion or time trial performance, while others show no effect.
One small study published in Sports Medicine studied the effects of respiratory trainers in rowers. Twenty-one rowers were separated into an RTD or a control group.
After ten weeks, the RTD group showed increased lung strength, but failed to show any improvement in overall performance, including no improvement in peak VO2, strength, or performance time. (Forbes, et. al.)
However, there are studies that show a benefit to respiratory devices. In another study, 31 male recreational soccer players were divided into three groups. One group used a Powerbreathe RTD, the second used a placebo, and the third acted as a control.
The RTD and placebo group completed a 6-week training program while the control group remained inactive and did not use an RTD. After six weeks, only the RTD group showed an improvement in distance running.
Participants cycled to exhaustion before and after using Powerbreathe daily for three weeks. Their performance increased and fatigue decreased. (Segizbaeva, et. al.)
Research cited on Airofit’s website shows favorable results for using their product.
The RTD group showed an increase of inspiratory muscle strength by 29.7% and the distance covered over six minutes by the RTD group increased by 3.6 meters. (Valiantis, et. al.)
The research that exists is limited and mixed. It’s also problematic that most of the research done has been performed by manufacturers of the devices.
However, two reviews of available research on respiratory training devices found that respiratory training does improve athletic performance.
In this review, researchers conclude that “In most well controlled and rigorously designed studies, utilizing appropriate outcome measures, respiratory muscle training has a positive influence upon exercise performance.”
Researchers continue by explaining the mechanisms by which RTDs improve performance is unclear, but that they do appear to “delay respiratory muscle fatigue, redistribute blood flow from respiratory to locomotor muscles, and decrease the perception of fatigue. (McConnell, et. al.)
Another review of 46 studies found that respiratory muscle training improves endurance performance in healthy individuals. They note that the greatest improvements are in untrained individuals in endurance-type sports. (Illi, et. al.)
Respiratory trainers may look like a hoax, but the science behind them suggests they actually work.
While more independent research is needed, based on the research available, RTDs may be a simple way to see marginal gains in performance.
It looks like weekend warriors and untrained athletes could see the greatest improvement, but that doesn’t mean elite or serious athletes wouldn’t benefit from an RTD. The gains may be smaller, but for elite athletes, no amount of improvement comes easily.
If you don’t mind the sticker price, an RTD might be an interesting training tool to incorporate into your training routine.
Matt Mosman (MS, CISSN, CSCS) is a research scientist, endurance athlete, and the founder and Chief Endurance Officer at EndurElite. Matt holds his B.S. in Exercise Science from Creighton University and his M.S. in Exercise Physiology from the University of California. Matt and his family reside in Spearfish South Dakota, where they enjoy running, mountain biking, camping, and all the outdoor adventures Spearfish has to offer.