Prevalence of Exercise-Induced Arterial Hypoxemia in Distance Runners at Sea Level

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It has been reported that ~50% of endurance-trained men demonstrate exercise-induced arterial hypoxemia (EIAH) during heavy exercise. However, this often-cited prevalence rate comes from a single study using a cohort of 25 highly trained men who completed maximal cycle ergometry. As arterial oxyhemoglobin saturation (SpO2) during maximal exercise is reported to be significantly lower during treadmill versus cycle ergometry in the same subjects, we hypothesized that the prevalence of EIAH would be greater than previously reported (and commonly referenced) in a larger cohort of highly endurance-trained men during maximal treadmill running.


Data from 124 highly trained male distance runners (V˙O2max range = 60.3–84.7 mL·kg−1·min−1) were retrospectively examined from previously published studies completed in the Indiana University Human Performance Laboratory. Subjects completed a constant speed, progressive-grade treadmill exercise test to volitional exhaustion, and arterial oxyhemoglobin saturation (SaO2ear) in all subjects was estimated using the same oximeter (Hewlett Packard 47201A).


Using similar inclusion criteria as previously published for highly trained (V˙O2max > 68 mL·kg−1·min−1) and for EIAH (SaO2ear ≤ 91%), 55 of 79 subjects (70%) exhibited exercise-induced arterial desaturation. Across all 124 subjects, 104 (84%) demonstrated at least moderate EIAH (SaO2ear ≤ 93%) during maximal treadmill exercise. SaO2ear was significantly yet weakly correlated with V˙E/V˙O2 (P < 0.01, r = 0.28) and V˙E/V˙CO2 (P < 0.001, r = 0.33) but not with V˙O2max.


These results indicate that the prevalence of EIAH in highly trained men during maximal treadmill exercise at sea level is greater compared with previously suggested data, with exercise mode perhaps playing a factor in the number of athletes who experience EIAH.

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