To most athletes, learning to breathe sounds like a waste of time. But what if training the breathing muscles could improve your performance? Studies featuring cyclists, rowers and runners show that small but significant improvements are possible. Let’s check out what will help you get there.
It’s all about belly breathing
The secret weapon in breathing efficiency is belly breathing, the ability to recruit your diaphragm to push as much air in and out of your lungs as possible. A lot of time spent sitting hunched in front of a TV or computer can make your diaphragm weaker and promotes shallow chest breathing. That’s why you will have to practice sending your breath to your belly to expand the abdomen and exercise the diaphragm muscle.
Belly breathing has a long lineage going from Buddha to Boonen and Cancellara. Fabian Cancellara’s win in 2014 at the Tour of Flanders brought him criticism from spectators who mistakenly observed that his rounded belly, so evident in the last 10km of the race, meant he had arrived out of shape. A closer look at the footage tells the real story: Cancellara was taking full advantage of his capacity for breath to maximize his effort and stave off fatigue.
When we breathe into the belly, we aren’t actually doing that at all. Instead, it’s the diaphragm we’re referring to which is a large and thin muscle supporting the lungs and other organs. Watch a child breathe and you will see a slight rise and fall of the belly whereas adults, hindered by aesthetic choices such as keeping their stomachs taught to appear trim, will often breathe from the chest. A breath from the chest recruits very little of the diaphragm and thereby creates a shallow breath. Less recruitment of the diaphragm weakens it over time and athletic performance suffers as a result.
During cycling, our bodies require large amounts of oxygen to pass on to oxygen-deprived blood. This blood in turn recirculates into the muscles and keeps lactic acid from overwhelming them and tiring them out (a state referred to as lactic threshold which you may have experienced as leg cramping). Shallow breathing from the chest forces the body to cross into the anaerobic zone (efforts made sans oxygen), a zone ideally reached only at the pinnacle of an effort such as a sprint.
Your diaphragm should move downward and help expand your lungs to bring air into them. Focus on filling the bottom 1/3 of your lungs first by using your belly to breathe rather than your chest. The result should be your tummy blowing up like a balloon first, and then the rib cage expanding second. (not the other way around like superman or the big bad wolf). The exhale should be similar, you should be contracting your abdomen to expel the air in your lungs.
Why it is Important to Breathe Properly While Cycling
Breathing properly while cycling will help deliver more oxygen to muscle tissue.
If you are a chest breather you will tire more quickly than a deep belly breather because you are not allowing yourself to inhale enough oxygen or exhale sufficient carbon dioxide.
Delivers more oxygen to the brain
Helps maintain the acid/base balance in the body by increasing oxygen flow and decreasing carbon dioxide (carbon dioxide increases acidity levels and larger quantities are created during exercise)
Three In, Three Out
Practice off the bike before you worry about how you breathe on the bike. We normally breathe between 15 and 20 times per minute, but research has shown that if we can get our breaths down to 10 per minute—six seconds per breath—that’s when we get the best benefits from breathing.
These benefits include lowered blood pressure and heart rate, expanded arteries for better circulation, reduction in inflammation in veins and arteries, a change in the blood chemistry to make it less acidic, and less panic and anxiety thanks to that shift in blood chemistry.
Slow, deep breathing breaks a panic cycle. And it boosts your immune system too. Spend five minutes per day timing your breathing—three seconds in, three seconds out. We believe you’ll start to see a change. Everyone has five minutes, even if you have to hide out in a bathroom stall to get it done! And those five minutes will make those benefits start happening, and make you start doing it in normal daily life, too. Over time, that practice will become second nature, seeping into how you breathe during everyday life and even on the bike.
Check In With Yourself
When you’re ready to test out your new and improved breathing skills while riding, remember to focus back on your breath every few minutes. If you notice that you’re breathing shallowly, take a few deep breaths to ‘reset’ your breathing.
“Breathing should always feel good and natural.. Now, obviously you’ll end up breathing rapidly when hitting harder intervals, but if you can just make your breaths slightly deeper, you’ll make your ride that much more efficient.
The most common problem is your position on the bike. I remember wanting to get in a very aerodynamic position, and as a result, I sacrificed my breathing and comfort. In the end I sacrificed speed by not being able to breathe properly. The aggressive position lowered the oxygen getting to the muscles resulting in a lower power output. Closing your hip angle too much and not allowing space for your diaphragm to move down in order to breathe in will ultimately result in fatiguing quicker and slower cycling.