New system simulates altitude training at sea level for U.S. track athletes

In a few short weeks, it’ll be a common sight on TV: Football players sucking oxygen between downs at Mile High Stadium, battling the effects of altitude and extreme exertion.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. A few years back, Martin Denbar, a dentist-by-training who now specializes in sleep apnea treatment, was watching his hometown team, the Houston Texans, when he saw something unusual.

“I noticed so many guys sitting on the bench breathing through their mouth,” said Denbar. “You absorb more oxygen when you breathe through your nose than your mouth… If you go and train like a maniac but you’re mouth breathing, you aren’t gaining as much as you can from it.”

Denbar’s Sunday afternoon observation got the gears turning, and he soon dove into a field called Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy, or OMT. It looks at how tongue, head and neck position affect breathing and, in the case of high-level athletes, how those elements can boost or kill performance when it matters.

“When you’re dealing with elite athletes and someone has a forward head position, which is considered improper posture, it leads to poor alignment and breathing and everything else,” Denbar said. “The tongue follows the head, and breathing follows the tongue.”

About 40 to 80 percent of Western populations breathe through their mouth, Denbar says, compared to a much smaller percentage of third-world populations. Why? It comes down to breastfeeding: children who breastfeed develop a stronger palate and tongue, which keeps the tongue high on the roof of the mouth. That makes it easier to naturally breathe through the nose — the first step to better performance on the field, track or trail.

Nose breathing brings 18 percent more oxygen into the body than mouth breathing, Denbar says, which in turn means an athlete doesn’t work as hard to get the fuel they need. This also reduces the amount of free oxygen floating through the body — a result of lactic acid buildup, the cause of muscle soreness and side stitches — and that can only be a good thing.

“Being in shape isn’t about how much oxygen you can take in,” Denbar said. “It’s about having the highest CO2 levels (while) maintaining stamina, ability and performance. That’s what we’re giving athletes, so that in the fourth quarter of a football game, they aren’t sucking air.”

Training smarter

Enter High Performance Breathing Technology, a new training system developed by Denbar and Patrick McKeown, a breathing specialist from Ireland and author of “The Oxygen Advantage.” His book gives tips for better breathing and then explains how simple adjustments like restricted breathing exercises can bolster sleep, athletic performance and overall health.

At the core of the HPBT system is the Buteyko Method, first introduced by Russian doctor KP Buteyko. He built the method for Russian cosmonauts in the ’50s, and,in the years since, it has been recognized as a treatment for asthma and other breathing conditions.

Now, McKeown and Denbar are fine-tuning the method to become yet another tool in an athlete’s quiver, like the proper diet or interval training.

And that’s where altitude comes in.

“A lot of people think that the more you sweat and grunt, the better it is, but, with this system, you get the same effort in Austin and Houston you would high in the mountains,” Denbar said.

Last September, the two specialists worked with three Notre Dame track athletes (Chris Geisting, Patrick Feeney and Jade Barber) for the first HPBT trial. They started with a lingual frenectomy — a simple operation to remove the piece of flesh connecting the tongue to the bottom of the mouth — and then launched into six weeks of Buteyko and other breathing exercises. The end goal: boost the production of erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that promotes red blood cells growth.

It worked.

“They received all the benefits at 500 feet above sea level they would see on top of a mountain,” Denbar said. “The beauty of this is that the exercises can be done easily, anywhere, 365 days a year, to maintain natural EPO production.”

In early July, all three athletes competed at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. None of them qualified for the team, but two of the three saw incredible results: Geisting went from No. 30 to No. 10 in the world for 400-meter spring, and Feeney went from No. 26 in the world to No. 14.

“It’s not like you go up to the mountain and two weeks later you’re back to normal at sea level,” Denbar said of HPBT training. “You can maintain altitude training all year, with no apparatus.”

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