You often see a football player on the side-lines breathing oxygen after running a long distance or having worked hard during a long series of plays, but is it actually doing anything?

In athletic performance oxygen controls many things and a lack of it causes loss of muscle control, poor stamina and an inability to concentrate. At its very worse it can cause complete and literal collapse. Many athletes try to extend their stamina and performance by using oxygen supplementation but does it work?

How oxygen supports performance

Kenyan nationals have become next to unbeatable in marathon running and one supposed reason for this performance was oxygen surplus. Kenyans are born and train in an atmosphere with lower oxygen and when they compete in marathons they are usually doing so in countries at lower altitudes and therefore they experience a natural oxygen surplus. Some believe this allows them to have higher stamina and a faster, stronger performance than people who train in more oxygen-rich atmospheres. It also boosts the idea that supplemental oxygen increases performance. Even if this theory is true, the question still remains as to whether artificial sources of oxygen can help you achieve Kenyan stamina. There have been a few studies that have shown that when pure oxygen is used prior to an athlete’s performance that they can lift weights quicker and cover short distances quicker. However during these few studies the participants knew that they were breathing pure oxygen and raises the question that perhaps the result was due to a placebo effect.

Confirming the studies

If there was significant proof that oxygen could enhance performance then there would have been an immediate debate as to whether breathing pure oxygen was deemed a performance-enhancing drug and whether it should be regulated or banned. The science of oxygen consumption and the studies that have been carried out answers the question with a resounding no. In healthy athletic people, such as professional football players, nearly all of the oxygen in the blood is carried by haemoglobin and only a very small percentage (1.5%) is dissolved in blood.  Even if an athlete breathes pure oxygen, haemoglobin cannot be more than 100% saturated and therefore does not change and the amount that is dissolved in the blood only raises to 5.6%. This minimal affect will nearly instantly disappear after you have stopped breathing the pure oxygen and is not enough to affect recovery or performance.

One study looked at football players given 100% oxygen or a placebo after exertion before they had to exercise again. There was no increase in performance during the second bout of exercise. Another study also concluded that supplemental oxygen may have a placebo effect, but there is “no real physiologic benefit.”

Supplemental oxygen is therefore not considered a performance-enhancing drug because it doesn’t work, the science and studies cannot provide supporting evidence and at best it may just have a placebo effect, which has a similar result that lucky socks do.

References Skeptical Scalpel