Exploring sport online: Athletes and efficient hearts
Exploring sport online: Athletes and efficient hearts

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6.4 Athletes and oxygen intake

In Section 4.4, we ranked a group of athletes in terms of heart rate. Now let us consider the same athletes in the same sports, but from the point of view of how efficient their respiratory system needs to be to perform in their chosen sports.

Activity 8: What you need to do

In which sports do athletes need efficient respiratory systems? Rank the sports from the one that demands the most efficiency to the least.


ActivityRespiratory system efficiency
Tennis player1 – Most efficient
Speed skater at the end of 1,000 m sprint2
Downhill skier at end of a downhill run3
Cyclist at the end of a stage of Tour de France4
Distance runner at the end of a 10,000 m race5
Shooter in a rifle event6
Sprint athlete7 – Least efficient

This exercise is perhaps a little more straightforward than the one about heart rates. The oxygen intake of the body is related to long-term activity, so athletes in sports that require sustained activity will benefit from having more efficient respiratory systems than athletes in shorter events. In fact, the sprinters might not even breathe very much at all during their races, as any oxygen taken during that short period will not have time get through the body to the parts which might use it: sprinters have to rely on the energy stored in their bodies, not on refuelling it as they go.

Applying the idea that long-term activity demands a more efficient respiratory system, the tennis player is a little more straightforward, because he has to perform for a long period of time, although in short bursts. Hence, he must have efficient lungs to perform well.

Again, the downhill skier is the least straightforward, for the same reason that the energy that they put into their sport is not obvious at first glance. We can see from the ranking given to them in this activity, however, that they too need to be good athletes in this sense as well.

In this case, the shooter is fairly easy to judge, because physical exertion is obviously not the most important thing in her sport.

So, how do athletes go about preparing their lungs for sport? Some endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, use the unique conditions of high altitudes.

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