Science Isn’t Bohr-ing: How To Deliver More Oxygen To Your Muscles

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Since Carson City, where I live, is located at 4,800 feet elevation friends and family who come to visit notice they get tired much faster.

And up in even higher cities, you might notice that just a minimal workout will lead to extreme shortness of breath – almost like you’re breathing through a straw and can’t get enough air.

But in just a few days your breathing gets easier and you carry on as normal.  It’s just a short acclimation process.

Athletes train at high altitudes because they want to improve their oxygen uptake and then take their improved cardiovascular system back to sea level and destrominate the competition.

Thirty something african american man in the outdoors getting fit.  MR#23.pdf

Most people would totally agree with this – that their breathing at high altitudes gets easier because their lungs are picking up more oxygen.

Science Time

In fact, you breath more easily after acclimation because your oxygen uptake has gotten worse.



See, oxygen is passed from your lungs to your blood, where it is picked up by hemoglobin molecules.

Hemoglobin binds to the oxygen and carries it along your bloodstream to where it is needed in your body.


The problem with this system is that when the hemoglobin/oxygen combo reaches your tissues, the hemoglobin bond is so strong that it doesn’t give up the oxygen easily.

That’s right: your blood doesn’t want to give up its oxygen to the rest of your body.  Selfish.

You can adapt though, and decrease hemoglobin’s attachment to oxygen in a way that lowers oxygen uptake in your lungs in order for you to get better delivery to your body’s tissues.

This is known as the Bohr Effect.

Here’s the definition:

Hemoglobin’s oxygen binding affinity is inversely related both to acidity and to the concentration of carbon dioxide. That is to say, a decrease in blood pH or an increase in blood CO2 concentration will result in hemoglobin proteins releasing their loads of oxygen and a decrease in carbon dioxide or increase in pH will result in hemoglobin picking up more oxygen.

So training at altitude DOES have the potential to increase your performance, just not in the way you’d think.

And now it’s time to get even more cool with science…

When you exercise really hard you produce lactic acid.  The hydrogen ions from lactic acid spread through your blood vessels (that’s the burn you feel during hard exercise) and change the shape of your hemoglobin so that the hemoglobin is less sticky to the oxygen.

got acid

In short, hard training leads to improved oxygen delivery inside of your body.

Repeated training at a high enough intensity leads your body to make a chemical called… wait for it… 2,3 diphosphoglycerate.  This chemical works like the Bohr effect – but the results last longer

2,3 diphosphiglycerate is made in high amounts in people who live at high altitudes and in people who regularly work out at a high intensity.

What’s high intensity?  Where you go so hard that your body’s demand for oxygen momentarily exceeds your ability to deliver it.  (Panting breathing and muscle burn)

So, the moral of the story is:  Training super-hard or at elevation (or both!) will increase your ability to deliver oxygen to your body… while absorbing less oxygen from the air.  How cool is that!

One Response to “Science Isn’t Bohr-ing: How To Deliver More Oxygen To Your Muscles”

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