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J Appl Physiol (1985). 2008 Mar;104(3):879-88. Epub 2007 Dec 20.

Exercise-induced respiratory muscle fatigue: implications for performance.

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  • 1Centre for Sports Medicine and Human Performance, Brunel University, Uxbridge, United Kingdom.


It is commonly held that the respiratory system has ample capacity relative to the demand for maximal O(2) and CO(2) transport in healthy humans exercising near sea level. However, this situation may not apply during heavy-intensity, sustained exercise where exercise may encroach on the capacity of the respiratory system. Nerve stimulation techniques have provided objective evidence that the diaphragm and abdominal muscles are susceptible to fatigue with heavy, sustained exercise. The fatigue appears to be due to elevated levels of respiratory muscle work combined with an increased competition for blood flow with limb locomotor muscles. When respiratory muscles are prefatigued using voluntary respiratory maneuvers, time to exhaustion during subsequent exercise is decreased. Partially unloading the respiratory muscles during heavy exercise using low-density gas mixtures or mechanical ventilation can prevent exercise-induced diaphragm fatigue and increase exercise time to exhaustion. Collectively, these findings suggest that respiratory muscle fatigue may be involved in limiting exercise tolerance or that other factors, including alterations in the sensation of dyspnea or mechanical load, may be important. The major consequence of respiratory muscle fatigue is an increased sympathetic vasoconstrictor outflow to working skeletal muscle through a respiratory muscle metaboreflex, thereby reducing limb blood flow and increasing the severity of exercise-induced locomotor muscle fatigue. An increase in limb locomotor muscle fatigue may play a pivotal role in determining exercise tolerance through a direct effect on muscle force output and a feedback effect on effort perception, causing reduced motor output to the working limb muscles.

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