Every minute of every day we breathe – now that’s an obvious point! But how often do you consciously notice how you are breathing on your bike and how you can change it to make it more effective? Cycling is unlike running or swimming where you get direct feedback if you aren’t breathing properly (eg. drowning or the stitch). In cycling we can be unaware and still get away with ineffective breathing, nonetheless, we can get through training and racing much more effectively and make it more enjoyable if we suck it in properly.
As the intensity of our riding increases and our muscles burn, a signal is sent to our brain to increase our breathing rate. This is a helpful mechanism as it helps to increase the rate of supplying oxygen to our muscles and clearing the by products that make our muscles hurt. In fact our breathing can increase to such a rate that we can breathe 65+ times per minute and push over 100 litres of air into our bodies! Line up fifty 2 litre bottles of Coca-Cola and there’s your 100 litres – every minute! Essentially the more air we can suck in, the better. Each of us have a limited lung volume, but we don’t all use it effectively. When I was testing riders at the University the highest I tested was a rider sucking in 210 litres per minute when riding at maximum effort – astounding!
So we all have this set limit, but it is very easy to work at only a fraction of what we can. Often I have seen riders with their shoulders up around their ears, and each breath drags them closer to touching their earlobes. This is how not to do it! To effectively make use of your lung volume you need to pull air into your lungs – really deep, and then let it out. In cycling it is very easy to entrain our pedalling cadence with our breathing rate, which is extremely ineffective. When breathing at 90 breaths per minute you cannot force air deep into your lungs. You will only be recycling the air at the top of your lungs and in your wind pipes. So ideally you want to aim for deep belly breathing and no up/down shoulder movement. This is especially important when you are riding up hills, or pushing at your threshold on the flat roads, as this is the time when our breathing will suddenly get more rapid. A good exercise to practise is when off the bike, take a big long deep breath in, aiming to extend your stomach, while relaxing your shoulders. Then take this onto the bike.
Handlebar position can make a difference. Under pressure we tend to want to hunch down and death grip the handlebars. Riding on the tops of the bars helps to open the shoulders and therefore the lungs, helping to get air in. In the city it is easy to get into the habit of riding on the brake-hoods but this forward position rounds the shoulders and restricts the lungs. The tops allow you to be up, relaxed and open.
If you have exercise induced asthma (EIA), controlled deep breathing is especially important. EIA occurs when the muscles in the wind pipe go into spasm. Cool, dry air is often the culprit, but an effective warm up can negate the EIA response. Warming up effectively by easy spinning for 20-30 minutes, then riding at a moderate intensity for 5-10 minutes will allow hormones to be released that relax the wind pipe and prevent adverse breathing reactions.
Breathing effectively deep into your belly will help your climbing and riding under intense pressure, so next time you ride take note of how you are breathing and see if you can improve your riding through this simple, but highly effective process.
Amy Taylor is a cycling coach based in Auckland and is Cycling Zealand’s Coach of the Year. Author of the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge Guide recently released through Awapress, Wellington, Amy coaches cyclists of all abilities at Kinetic Edge (www.kecycling.com) and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or 09 368 7819.