Reconsidering the Effects of Respiratory Constraints on the Optimal Running Speed


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2012 - Volume 44 - Issue 7 - p 1344–1350
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e318248d907
Applied Sciences

Introduction: Although both humans and quadrupeds frequently coordinate breathing and limb movement during running, early studies in humans focused on how increased breathing flexibility in humans allowed for relaxed or even transient coordination during locomotion. This difference was used to explain why quadrupeds had an optimal running speed whereas humans did not. Recent research, however, has clearly demonstrated that humans, like quadrupeds, have an optimal running speed. Because these findings are new, it remains unclear why this is true: whether because entrainment in humans was more important than initially predicted or because another restraint is acting. Here, we try to explain the observed minimum cost of transport (CoT) by analyzing metabolic cost with respect to entrainment and a standard set of anthropometrics.

Methods: We measured the energetic cost of human running at five different speeds and calculated individual CoT curves for each participant (N = 9). Simultaneously, entrainment was determined by the degree to which a poststimulus histogram (breaths per 0.05-s bin after a footfall) differed from a uniform plot.

Results: We compared the degree of entrainment to each participant’s optimal running speed and found that although all of our subjects clearly entrained at some speeds, entrainment was not a function of CoT (P = 0.897). Because entrainment was also not correlated with speed (P = 0.304), it seems that bipedalism removed the respiratory constraints associated with quadrupedalism as originally suggested.

Conclusions: Unlike quadrupeds, for whom respiratory constraints remain implicated in the speed dependence of CoT, constraints that lead to a minimum CoT for people must involve other mechanisms of efficiency such as the storage and release of energy in the lower limbs.

1Department of Biology, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle, WA; and 2Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA

Address for correspondence: Michael A. Willcockson, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, Jack and Pearl Resnick Campus, 1300 Morris Park Avenue, Bronx, NY 10461; E-mail:

Submitted for publication July 2011.

Accepted for publication December 2011.

©2012The American College of Sports Medicine