While increasing your lung capacity might not be first on your list of fitness goals, it just might benefit the goals you do have. Your lung capacity is what helps you get up the stairs without getting out of breath, or crank up the resistance on a stationary bike. It also helps you lift more weight and recover quicker in between intervals. Lung capacity can actually make or break your training.
The measurement of your lung capacity is called your V02 max. This is the maximum volume of oxygen that you can utilize during exercise and is generally considered the best indicator of your cardiovascular fitness level. So it’s simple: If you can maximize the amount of oxygen that you use when things get tough, you won’t wear out as quickly and exercise won’t feel as hard. Score!
While most people don’t need to get tested or calculate their V02 max, training to be more effective when your heart rate starts pumping is important. Here are three good ways to start improving your lung capacity.
Seems easy enough, right? But to improve your lung capacity, the important thing to add to your cardio workouts is variety. Whether you’re running, biking, on the elliptical, or dancing, you need to mix up how long you sweat it out, how hard you work, and the amount of rest you give yourself between tough periods.
What to do: When planning your cardio workouts, cycle between steady state workouts (longer duration with less variation in intensity) and mixed intensity workouts (shorter duration with lots of variation in intensity). In the steady state workouts, continue to push your intensity levels toward a place where you feel challenged and only able to speak 3-5 words. Work toward being able to hold this intensity for longer bouts during the workout. Then, for the mixed intensity workouts, aim to go beyond challenged to breathless; think of this as the hardest work you can do. Follow up with an active recovery at a pace you can handle and talk in sentences. Mix up how long you push and how long you recover. Need inspiration? Try a HIIT workout.
While breathing is considered automatic, improving the way you breathe can have a profound effect on your workouts. As we age, we tend to begin shallow breathing, which will affect the amount of oxygen that is delivered to your working muscles, and can rob the energy that ultimately fuels your workouts. The diaphragm is the major muscle responsible for breathing; intercostal and abdominal muscles also play an important role. Retraining this area of the body to help you breathe deeply, especially when you’re recovering and not working out, will help improve your lung capacity.
What to do: First, add yoga, pilates, and/or meditation to your training regimen. All three have a primary focus on breathing and will help retrain you to use the breath during exercise. Here’s a simple exercise you can do anywhere: Begin by opening your mouth (this helps you take in more oxygen and it relaxes your face). Then, take a two-count exhale, followed by a three-count, and so on. Continue to try and increase the length of your inhale and exhale, whole concentrating on breathing fully.
We often underestimate the power of recovery on our physical (and mental) body. Working hard to improve your lung capacity in the gym should be tempered with downtime. This doesn’t have to mean doing nothing, but could be lower intensity cardio and daily activities such as house cleaning or a walk around the neighborhood. Active recovery days can also include a restorative yoga class or dance class.
Bottom line: You don’t have to breath hard every day to see results. When you over-train, you actually might have a harder time controlling your breath. And while you might think that’s a good thing, breathing hard isn’t what’s making your lungs stronger. Your lungs get stronger when you’re producing more work while you’re breathing hard. When you’re tired, you’re most likely producing less work at a higher breath rate. Phew. All that is to say, take a break! Your body will reward you.
What to do: Always warm up properly before hard cardio workouts. During the warm-up, assess your breathing rate. If you notice yourself breathing harder than normal, extend your warm-up or decrease the intensity of the workout for the day. Aim for tougher workouts only 2-3 times per week and allow full recovery (at least 36-48 hours before you do those effort levels again) between your mixed intensity workouts described above.
Written by Luke Andrus and Shannon Fable