Is Oxygen A Performing Enhancing Drug For NFL Players?

You see it every year from September to February. Every Sunday afternoon, Monday, or Thursday night you watch an NFL player make his way to the sidelines to find assistance, not from a coach or a sport’s drink but a mask. After an intense defensive series, Johnny Linebacker trots back to his teammates fatigued and exhausted. Waiting for him is his lifeline for improved performance: a mask providing continuous oxygen. After only a couple minutes of breathing this gaseous nectar, Johnny is rejuvenated and ready to punish his opponents as he and his team pursue their goal of earning a trip to Disney World — which is preceded by a Super Bowl trophy!  But what is this wonder drug and what is it doing to his body? The answers: Oxygen and…nothing, at least physiologically.

Physiology 101

All people get short of breath. Everyone gets tired exercising. Some get tired after chasing a running back fifty yards. Others get tired after completing a triathlon. Still others, myself included, get tired just watching these events unfold! The reason for this phenomenon is that every human being has an exercise limit. Exercise increases the demand for oxygen in the body. Your body answers this demand by increasing its heart rate and breathing rate to get more oxygen to the tissues. This mechanism is called aerobic respiration and is associated with athletic endurance events like running.

But wait, there’s more!

Your body has a backup plan.  If the body’s energy demands exceed the body’s ability to produce energy, then another mechanism kicks in:  anaerobic respiration.  This system is common in explosive, short bursts of exercise.  As the name implies, this mechanism does not use oxygen for energy but instead only glycogen, or sugar.  If your body utilizes all of its glycogen sources then it comes to a crashing halt, i.e., you hit the proverbial wall. What is interesting is neither of these processes results from a lack of oxygen in the body.  Healthy adults have plenty of oxygen at their disposal.  All you have to do is breathe.  The limiting factor is the body’s ability to transport the oxygen effectively to the tissues. 

Physiology 102

Imagine your body as a subway system.  Trains (hemoglobin in blood) transport people (oxygen) to different areas of the body.  Exercise demands more people get to more places faster.  But in healthy adults, the trains are always full of people.  The problem is that trains can only move so quickly – one’s maximum heart rate.  The difference with elite, well-conditioned athletes like Johnny Linebacker is not that they can’t increase their heart rate more than non-conditioned athletes, it’s that hearts of well-conditioned athletes can pump blood more efficiently (improved stroke volume). The maximum rate your heart can pump is dependent on age, not conditioning.  So when Johnny Linebacker feels better after donning his oxygen mask in between defensive series, it is not because he replenished a depleted level of oxygen in his body.  It’s because he “caught his breath” by resting.  But even though oxygen is doing nothing physiologically (the only exception may be when playing in Denver), it can help Johnny psychologically.  And in a sport where psychology and the mind play a vital role in success, this can be a game changer.  Whatever works! Learn more about the Pulmonary System through my workshops here.

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