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Respiratory Limitations to Athletic Performance

The respiratory system (lungs) plays a vital role in athletic performance more than most people realize. The lungs' inspiratory and expiratory muscles along with the diaphragm are susceptible to fatigue with sustained exercise. This fatigue is due to elevated levels of respiratory muscle work (high breathing frequency) which causes a Respiratory Muscle-Induced Metaboreflex.

Metaboreflex is where the body restricts (vasoconstriction) blood flow (oxygen) to the limbs when the breathing muscles fatigue thereby decreasing performance.  The brain might not receive the full amount of oxygen it requires, thereby decreasing cognitive function, slowing reaction times and increasing the possibility for injury. 

Our arteries contain smooth muscle tissue which can cause vasoconstriction when needed, which narrows the arteries reducing blood flow (oxygen) to muscles and organs. Vasodilation increases blood flow (oxygen) to an area in the body that needs more oxygen for working muscles when needed.


Respiratory limitations are categorized into Capacity and Capability.

Capacity is the volumes of air that can be inhaled or exhaled. 

Capability is the ability to be able to use the volumes of air in athletic activity.

Capacity limitations can be a medical issue such as asthma, exercise-induced bronchoconstriction (EIB) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other medical conditions.

Capacity limitations can also be structural, limited thoracic and rib mobility, limited strength/power in diaphragm expiratory muscles. These capacity limitations are trainable. 

Capability limitations are when an individual cannot use their capacity

(available volume) during athletic activity.


 Capacity limitations refer to when an individual’s lung volume (inspiratory or (expiratory) is reduced below what is normal for age, sex, height, and ethnicity using direct measurement Spirometry.

Spirometry measures the rate at which the lung changes volume during forced breathing maneuvers. Spirometry begins with a full inhalation, followed by a forced expiration that rapidly empties the lungs. Expiration is continued for at least 6 seconds or until a plateau in exhaled volume is reached.


The most important spirometry test is the FVC (Forced Volume Capacity) and FEV1(Forced Expiratory Volume in 1Second To measure FVC and FEV1 the individual inhales maximally, then exhales as rapidly and as completely as possible. Normal lungs generally can empty more than 80 percent of their volume in six seconds or less. The forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) is the volume of air exhaled in the first second of the FVC test. 

FVC (Forced Volume Capacity) values less than 80 percent are inspiratory limitations. These can be trained to increase athletic performance.

FEV1 (Forced Expiratory Volume in 1 Second) and  FEV6 (Forced Expiratory Volume in 6 Seconds) Values less than 100 percent are expiratory limitations. These can be trained to increase athletic performance.

Capacity limitations are trained first before Capability limitations.

Capability limitations do not allow the Capacity to be used during athletic performance and are found during a graded exercise test. There are 3 types of Capability limitations.

  • Strength/Power

Normal capacity, Peak VT is not 75-85 percent of their FEV1 despite their FEV1 being normal.

(VT Tidal Volume is the amount of air that moves in or out of the lungs with each respiratory cycle)

  • Endurance

Normal capacity, They cannot maintain VT over time.

  • Coordination

Normal capacity, Low VT with high breathing frequencies at lower intensities, (Zones 2and 3)

Losses VT at higher intensities (Zones 6 and above) 


Metabolic analysis is the only test method that measures performance of your cardiovascular, respiratory, and metabolic health and fitness. Metabolic analysis also identifies function, health, and performance limitations and accurate training zones.


Titan Training offers State of the Art Spirometry, (Respiratory Pulmonary Function Testing) V02 Max Testing, and Resting Metabolic Rate Testing, for Aerobic Health, Cardiovascular Fitness, Respiratory Capacity, Respiratory Capability, Breathing and Stability, Metabolic Efficiency (Low Intensity), Metabolic Efficiency, (High Intensity) Fat Burning Efficiency, Breathing and Cognition. 

Titan Training can help you maximize your training efforts to take your athletic performance to a whole new level you might have not thought was possible.

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