How to Breathe RIGHT on a bike to go FASTER!

Share on Facebook

by Rebecca

Post image for How to Breathe RIGHT on a bike to go FASTER!

Wondering if there are better ways to breathe on the bike to go that bit faster?

The most important thing when it comes to breathing right on the bike is to make sure you are using your lungs to maximum potential. To do this, you want to make sure you’re breathing ‘deeply’ rather then taking lots of shallow breaths.

By breathing deeper, you actually start using more of your lung ‘capacity’ and in doing so more readily optimise oxygen uptake to the muscles.

A very important point to note here is that you can’t increase your oxygen uptake (VO2 Max) by breathing deeper. You can only help optimise the oxygen uptake you already have by learning to use your lungs more fully.

Hence, if you’re looking for breathing techniques to specifically increase oxygen uptake – as far as I’m aware – there are none!  You simply do your cycle training to increase VO2 Max!  Over time, as you probably know, you should see a slower heart rate, or better power output for the same speed over a given course.

So how do we ‘open’ our lungs more fully to optimise this oxygen uptake to the working muscles?

First, let’s briefly look at how the lungs work:

  • On inhalation - the diaphragm (that’s a dome shaped muscle that sits below the lungs) contracts and flattens down, pulling the lungs upwards and outwards.  The rib muscles, or your ‘intercostal’ muscles also have a role to play by helping to expand the chest upwards and outwards too.  As the chest expands, so air pressure within the lungs drops enabling air to be drawn in.  A good analogy here is how a bike pump works: you pull the bike pump down to draw air in.
  • On exhalation - the diaphragm and intercostals relax and the lungs ‘elastically revert’ back down in the chest again. However, when you’re cycling and you hit a hill or start breathing harder, your abdominal muscles (as well as the intercostals) also come into play to help expel air from your lungs.

Techniques for opening up the lungs fully when cycling:

Now you can probably see that the diaphragm plays a key role in ‘breathing’ properly when cycling.  So the next step is to know how to maximise the movement of the diaphragm.  Here’s a well known technique that top cyclists use and one I was taught:

1. Check your bike position!

One of the big problems with cycling is the position we have to adopt to go faster.  On a road bike we sit hunched over the bars, cramping our stomach muscles and constricting the full movement of the diaphragm. Check you are not too low over the bars cramping your tummy.  For a sportive you want to be more ‘upright’ anyway, so in many ways constriction isn’t such an issue here.

[However, if you race in time trials then you do need to be aware of the balance between getting low for aerodynamics versus your power output. Sometimes going lower on the bike constricts not only your lung capacity, but also your power output – probably without realising it as a novice!

NB: you just have to observe Lance Armstrong time trailing to see how he ‘needs’ to be more upright in his position (versus his rivals) to maximise both his lung capacity and his power output.  Don’t forget he’d done a huge amount of testing and this (more upright style) was his most efficient position to time trial at his best.

Leaner cyclists can obviously get lower and yes this is an advantage specially if you have super power output – but then leaner cyclists also have to watch too for compressing the diaphragm too much and losing lung efficiency!]  Bottom line is – test, test and test again.

2. Breathe from your tummy!

To use your diaphragm to full potential – focus breathing from your tummy, not your lungs.

A quick tip to check you’re doing this right is to put your hand on the upper part of your tummy below your lungs and FEEL your tummy expanding outwards.  When you feel and see your tummy bellow outwards, and feel your chest (lungs) rise – this is the correct way.

Try it the opposite way by focusing instead on your lungs to see and feel the difference!  This is probably what you’re doing on each training ride but now you know better!:-)  It’s amazing how much deeper you can inhale and exhale now with each breath.

3. Learn to breathe IN through your mouth and OUT through your nose!

Now this is hard to do and I have to admit I never got this good at my breathing, but it’s a useful tip if you want to well and truly breathe properly when cycling. I stress this tip is only used by ‘few of us’ and reserved for elite cycling racers wanting to find the tiniest edge over their rivals…as compared to breathing normally, the advantages here are tiny….so please bear this in mind!

Research suggests breathing through your nose as you exhale.  The reason for this is simple.  You exhale air slower than you would if you exhaled via your mouth.  Because the air is slower to leave the lungs, it has more time to extract more oxygen from each breath.  Now as I said, when I tried this I found this quite hard and at times very restricting, but with substantial time and patience (!) it can evidentely become second-nature.

4. Breathe with your own natural pace!

One problem with learning to breathe correctly at speed is you get so focused on breathing correctly that you forget to pay attention to your cycling!  A key thing that helped me especially, was to try to time your breathing with your cycling pedalling rate and that way you could focus on both at the same time.

So a tip here is to ‘get into a rhythm’ with your breathing AND your pedalling. For example, I used to do something like two pedal strokes for inhale and one pedal stroke of exhale. Obviously, you will no doubt be different to me – and I warn that this approach ‘may not’ work for you but it certainly helped me. The key point is to breathe rhythmical with your cycling and keep as natural as you can.

If you want a gadget that specially helps with breathing ‘training’, check out  The Power Breathe Sports Performance Plus . This little gadget basically uses resistance training to increase the strength and endurance of your breathing muscles, improving whole body endurance and ultimately improving your performance.  It is scientifically proven to improve lung capacity.  I’ve not tried it myself, but it certainly has had some good reviews.

Also, if you’d like to read further on the subject of breathing right for cyclists, I highly recommend this book: Breathe Strong, Perform Better by Alison McConnel

Final words:

Breathing correctly on the bike becomes more significant the faster we want to go.  However, getting these first steps right should help you become aware of how you are breathing and how you could better this with a little basic knowledge and understanding.

Just remember: breathe from your tummy, keep it natural and make sure you’ve got a nice comfy cycle position…. and you should find you’re faster for it too!

If you have a comment to this article, I’m sure many readers will love to hear your point of view.  Also, if this post was useful, do share with your cycling friends too!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Alasdair September 12, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Rebecca,

I found this article very interesting. I’ve always thought the body would just do the correct thing where breathing is concerned, so I’ve never thought about trying to control it much.

Then I went out and was coming up to the big hill on my usual training run and between thinking about breathing, pedalling in circles and getting the gearing right I suddenly found my left foot unclipping from the pedal. Lost me some rhythm and some speed. It did make me laugh though.

Tough stuff this cycling on the brain. And when I started I thought it was all about just turning the pedals over!

Keep up the good work,
Alasdair

Reply

Simon Dobby September 15, 2011 at 12:58 pm

Rebecca,

I have fairly recently started doing pilates as an alternative to floorwork (pressups etc) in the gym, and with that we are told to “breathe laterally” – that is, to tighten the abs and concentrate on making the lungs expand to the sides (rather than upwards). We are told to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth (I think this is meant to be a “calming” thing…).
Your advice (which I’m sure does work for cycling as it has different objectives) means I have to remember to do the opposite to my pilates training when on the bike – breathe in through the mouth, belly out (so to speak), lungs rising; then breathe out through the nose.
I presume that the “belly” thing is in order to maximise the volume of air brought into the lungs, and the breathing in through the mouth maximises the rate at which air is inhaled (I guess you can inhale more quickly through the mouth than the nose?), and likewise breathing out through the nose acts as a sort of “bottleneck” to prevent you exhaling too quickly, prevent you blowing fresh air out of the lungs before it has been “made use of”?

Cheers
Simon

Reply

Rebecca September 15, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Hi Simon – yes, you’ve understood correctly how to breathe properly whilst cycling. HOWEVER, you have to take everything one step at a time! Learn to breathe from the tummy more and don’t worry too much about the breathing out through the nose – just drop that for now! The breathing in through the nose is an advanced breathing technique used as a final ‘perfection’ to proper breathing for elite racers and something I found very hard to achieve. At the end of the day the most important thing is to maximise your lung capacity by learning to breathe more from the tummy – this will have more of an effect on your cycling oxygen uptake than any breathing in/out technique from mouth/nose…!

Rebecca

Reply

Simon Dobby September 15, 2011 at 2:31 pm

OK – being a (mildly) asthmatic person it is usually my lungs that complain before the rest of me does, hence I tend to prick my ears up at hints to improve my breathing technique :o )

Reply

Zariel September 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Wow I must cnfoses you make some very trenchant points.

Reply

welshcyclist October 11, 2011 at 9:04 am

I used to breathe in for 3 steps and exhale for 5 steps when walking, I tried to adapt it to cycling with the same rhythym, but have found it difficult to maintain and keep my pace going, but I was breathing out via the mouth I’ll try to use my nose next time.

Reply

Rebecca October 11, 2011 at 9:44 am

Hi – it’s best to first get used to the proper breathing using tummy etc, – but if you feel you’re confident with good breathing tummy technique then the next step is to practice the inhalation and exhalation via mouth and nose…it’s hard, yes (!) and takes an extraordinary level of discipline to master it when cycling…but there is no harm in giving it a go! Let us know how you get on with it…

Reply

lee March 26, 2014 at 11:53 am

this is a great article , i went in search of this because i fell across the technique accidently when training on the turbo trainers and with an heart rate monitor,i already new about belly breathing which helped me out when i started to get a stich after 20 mins into the ride , i noticed when i breathed in and out through my nose after an hard interval my heart rate droped significantly as opposed to breathing through my mouth, its hard though and feels restricting but it helps recovery for the next interval,,,

Reply

Rebecca June 7, 2014 at 11:00 pm

Hi Lee – great observations and congrats on giving it a go and testing – it’s through trial and error we find what gets us faster :-)

Thanks for commenting.

R

Reply

Eddie June 1, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Hi, I am by no means a great cyclist, as i am overweight and cannot seem to get any kind of speed up, in fact i am very lucky to get more than an 11mph average over a 40 mile cycle. I found that i was always out of breath and my lungs were killing me, taking shallow breaths and finding it very hard to catch any or my mates when we went out cycling. That was until today when my brother told me of a tip that was handed down to him from his athletic friends, which was to breath in for 4 seconds and out for 4 seconds. I tried it today and to my amazement i could cycle far faster and never got out of breath, even on the steepest of hills, in fact i broke my record and on todays 40 mile cycle ended up with a 14.5ph average which is quite amazing to me (as i said im not fit), which led me to google the phrase “breathing right and cycling performance” which in turn led me here. Now i can’t wait to try the breathing out through the nose technique and see if my performance increases even more. I would also like to point out that I have never left a message on any of these message things before, but frankly, i figured i am living proof that this technique works and if it works for me it should work for everyone. Ok i realise 14.5mph average isnt great by any standard but for me its quite amazing and i am really chuffed with myself, and my increased performance. i have been trying for years to find out how these guys in cycling clubs manage to achieve averages of 20mph plus and noone is willing to part with the illusive secret, but i will pass this tip onto anyone who will listen, as like i said IT WORKS.

Reply

Rebecca June 7, 2014 at 10:51 pm

Hi Eddie, – sorry for delay in replying here. Congrats on finding a way to breathe more effectively…you see, the “trick” is to keep trying new techniques and persist with it. You will lose weight and you will get faster – it’s all in the training (and recovery). Thanks for commenting!

Reply

Eddie June 8, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Hi Rebecca, thankyou for replying to my comment, your article was brilliant by the way. As a follow up, i tried the whole breathing thing again today, and for the life of me i couldn’t seem to get the hang of it at all this time, but as you said the trick is to keep finding new techniques. Although the blistering wind blowing against me didnt help at all lol, i think my fastest speed was approx 9MPH, it was a killer of a headwind. My biggest problem however is that the people i cycle with seem to start at a really fast pace, and keep it up, whereas i need about a 10 to 20 minute warm up before i can breath properly at all, up until this time i am gasping and wheezing trying to keep up with them, and my recovery time, is non existant, as i seem to be peddling constantly trying to catch them as they get a break, waiting a few miles up the road for me to catch up before taking off again lol. This fitness lark is not at all easy :) …. Keep up the good work and any more tips will be greatly appreciated, and of course tried, i need all the help i can get :}

Reply

Rebecca June 8, 2014 at 7:54 pm

Hi Eddie – well they ‘should be’ taking it easy and warming in before picking up their pace! I know what it feels like when riders just ride away like that from the get-go, so you’re not alone at all here. You are doing the right thing to warm in and get your breathing and pace comfortable. In the beginning, there is nothing more unsociable than people blasting off and then waiting for you, then blasting off again. Do check you’re happy riding with this group. You may need a group that’s “less rude” and more accommodating to your level of fitness. This is very akin to UK club riding…it can be hard for beginners to break in. That having been said, your fitness will improve and you’ll soon find your pace and what works for you. Just keep going with it and breakthroughs will happen!

Reply

Leave a Comment

CAPTCHA Image
*