How to Breathe RIGHT on a bike to go FASTER!

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by Rebecca

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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!

{ 7 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

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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

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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

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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 )

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Zariel September 28, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Wow I must cnfoses you make some very trenchant points.

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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.

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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…

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