Heavy Breathing

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, September 1999

Heavy Breathing
A device for improving lung capacity has athletes in a lather

For years, the quest to gain stamina and speed by developing bigger, stronger lungs has led athletes of all stripes to engage in some bizarre rituals. Take Emil Zßtopek, the Olympic distance runner of 1952. Convinced he could increase the size of his lungs simply by holding his breath, he once passed out while pulling sentry duty as a private in the Czech army. His superiors were not amused. Now, thanks to Dr. Alison McConnell, director of the Sports Medicine and Human Performance Unit at England's University of Birmingham, men and women driving themselves to the point of expiration for the sake of enlarged alveoli have reason to hope.

McConnell, 37, was a rower on the Birmingham City crew that won a bronze medal in the 1984 national championships. After spending ten years researching breathlessness, she built a small device that looks like the sprayer to a garden hose, and dubbed her prototype the Powerbreathe. The technology is simple but effective: The user attaches a clip to the nose and inhales through a plastic tube connected to an adjustable valve; the valve forces the user to breathe harder than normal, strengthening the muscles around the lungs. (Think of it as trying to suck an egg through a garden hose, in the name of science.) Experiments show that subjects who take 30 breaths on the Powerbreathe twice per day can strengthen these muscles up to 30 percent.

For the last two years, McConnell's company, IMT Technologies, has been selling the device in England, over the telephone and the Internet, and soon intends to make it available (priced, a little steeply, at $80) in the United States. "It's a great concept," says Dr. Murray Rogers, chief of the pulmonary section at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. Rogers theorizes that the stronger a person is, the more likely that he will benefit from lung-strengthening exercises. He also stresses that more testing has to be done before any decisive conclusions can be reached. "Will it work? I don't know."

McConnell's supporters need no additional convincing. Dave Reddin, fitness adviser to the English Rugby Union team, reveals that his lads have been training with the Powerbreathe for the past eight months to get ready for October's World Cup matches inEngland and Wales. "Some players say it's like the difference between running with an open parachute, and then taking off the parachute and running unencumbered," Reddin says. "Just using the Powerbreathe seems to make them feel stronger."

For more information about Powerbreathe go to http://www.powerbreathe.com

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