Menu Close

The Power of Breathlessness

Measure Breathlessness for Breathing Efficiency

Athletes often struggle with breathlessness. This is not only common for an individual exercising for the first time but also for the experienced athlete.

During increased rate and depth of breathing (hyperpnea) the relative cost of breathing increases exponentially when moving from moderate exercise to heavy and maximal exercise levels. (1) While at moderate exercise, the cost of the respiratory system accounts for 3-6% total VO2max, heavy exercise accounts for a ~10% demand and maximal exercise accounts for anywhere between 13-15%. (2)

There is a substantial cost associated with high rates of ventilation, so much so that as much as 10% of the oxygen consumption at VO2 max may be used to support the respiratory muscles. (3) Breathing efficiency and physical fitness are both independent and complementary, and whilst physical fitness does not always translate into breathing efficiency, there is no doubt that breathing efficiency is the gateway to attaining physical fitness.

Breath holding is one of the most powerful methods to induce the sensation of breathlessness, and that the breath hold test ‘gives us much information on the onset and endurance of dyspnea’ (laboured breathing).

If a person breath holds after a normal exhalation, it takes approximately 40 seconds before the urge to breathe increases enough to initiate inspiration.(5)

A low breath hold time has a direct correlation to over breathing or breathing pattern disorder (BPD) and sensitivity to carbon dioxide (6).

How to measure breathlessness

Two measurements are used to determine the extent of breathlessness:

  1. BOLT (comfortable breath hold time) measurement (4)

    • Take a small silent breath in through your nose.
    • Allow a small silent breath out through your nose.
    • Hold your nose with your fingers to prevent air from entering your lungs.
    • Count the number of seconds until you feel the first distinct desire to breathe in.

Test Your BOLT Score

    • Less than 25 seconds and you’re more likely to have a BPD.  Above 25 seconds and there is an 89% chance no breath discorder is present. A bolt score to strive for is at minimum said 25 seconds and a maximum of 40 seconds.


  1. Maximum breath hold test (MBT)

    • Exhale normally through nose
    • Walk at a normal pace while holding the breath
    • Count the maximum number of paces that you can hold your breath
    • Less than 60 paces means there is significant room for improvement, whereas a goal to aim for is 80 to 100 paces.

Image of a Cyclist

  • Knowing your comfortable breath hold time (BOLT) measurement and how to improve this through the correct breathing exercises will significantly improve oxygen delivery to muscles and organs. This will directly correlate to improved athletic performance, general wellbeing and not just living but thriving.


(1) Aaron EA, Seow KC, Johnson BD, Dempsey JA. Oxygen cost of exercise hyperpnea: implications for performance. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1992 May;72(5):1818- 25.
(2) Aaron EA, Seow KC, Johnson BD, Dempsey JA. Oxygen cost of exercise hyperpnea: implications for performance. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1992 May;72(5):1818- 25.
(3) Noakes. Lore of Running
(4) Nishino T. Pathophysiology of dyspnea evaluated by breath-holding test: studies of furosemide treatment. Respiratory Physiology Neurobiology.2009 May 30;(167(1)):20-5
(5) McArdle W, Katch F, Katch V. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. 1st ed. North American Edition. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; Seventh, (p289) (November 13, 2009)
(6) Stanley,N.N.,Cunningham,E.L.,Altose,M.D.,Kelsen,S.G.,Levinson,R.S., and Cherniack, N.S. 7) Evaluation of breath holding in hypercapnia as a simple clinical test of respiratory chemosensitivity. Thorax.1975;30():337-343

Before You Leave...

Try WHOOP - the Best Wellness Tracker in South Africa...

WHOOP Tracks Sleep, Stress, Strain, Recovery, and Health data, and offers personalised coaching. 

WHOOP Bands purchased direct from Made To Thrive include a 30 minute video consult to help you understand the data.

Sign up for our newsletter

and discover how you were Made To Thrive