This article originally appeared in the Capital Bicycle Club Newsletter April 2013
I decided to write about breathing this month, only slightly spurred by the flurry of events that followed Rep. Ed Orcutt’s comments about breathing last month. Though he has now retracted the comments, his assertion about the impacts of heavier breathing while exercising and the impact on CO2 emissions from cyclists was an interesting/entertaining one. The exchange and discussion did spur some deeper research of my own into the carbon footprint of cycling, and I hope to share that with you in an upcoming article, but not quite yet… For the moment, let’s just talk about improving our breathing techniques on the bike.
Your breathing style on (and off) the bike can influence your performance and how well you ride. From a simple standpoint, our breath is the mechanism that brings a flow of oxygen into our lungs and expels carbon dioxide from energy production. That mechanism can vary in efficiency depending on our techniques. Looking at it deeper, breath control also has the potential to limit anxiety and stress and improve our efficiency while riding (climbing, for instance.) Even further, some approach cycling as part of a meditation practice and use their breath to connect to a higher power. However deep you personally choose to go with it, there is a lot to be gained from learning to connect with your breathing on the bike.
Nasal Breathing: Opening the mouth while we breathe bypasses the structures that warm, moisten, and filter the air that we draw into our lungs. It also has a tendency to activate our “fight or flight”/stress response which will tend to bring more tension and anxiety to the body. (Think about how you feel gasping for air at the end of a climb.) Steady nasal breathing, even though it takes practice, slows down your breathing rate so there is more time for oxygen to be absorbed. There will be times, of course, when we have to breath through the mouth, but this doesn’t mean it should be our dominant pattern.
Diaphragm Activation: Many tips I’ve seen from professional riders and coaches calls for letting the belly drop down to draw the abdominal contents down and away from the diaphragm to draw air into the lungs. This is preferable to hiking up the shoulders in order to strive for the same, but I wouldn’t recommend it as your primary strategy. In my opinion, this leaves the lower back vulnerable to unfavorable stresses, which is not a great long-term strategy on the bike. Instead, a deep breath in should cause the lower ribs to expand outward and the pressure of the lowering diaphragm should create a sensation of filling the abdominal cavity all the way to the pelvic floor, as if the space between your top of your lungs and the bottom of your pelvis is a long balloon that fills up with your breath.
Breathing Rate: One of the most consistent recommendations I find is that exhaling should be longer than inhaling, though certainly people will have differing experiences with this. The benefit of a longer, deeper exhalation is that this creates a higher turnover and mixing of air coming into the lungs, especially into the lower lungs. (Read: delivery of more OXYGEN!) A cycle of 3 counts exhaling and 2 counts inhaling is a fairly good place to start. You can tie the counts to your pedaling rate, though, if you have a higher cadence you may just use the 3:2 ratio as a guide to matching your pedal strokes.
Practice On and Off the Bike: One good place to try practicing your breathing rhythm is on your back with your knees bent and your feet elevated and resting on the seat of a chair. Place your hands around your lower rib cage and practice letting your breath expand your lower ribcage to the side and back. Start by exhaling for a count of 3 and inhaling for a count of 2. On your bike, practice by picking a part of your ride that isn’t too challenging with terrain or effort and experiment with trying to achieve this same feeling you got when practicing at home. If you lose focus or count, just start over and try to maintain it as long as you can. If you are like me your mind may drift while you are on your bike. Don’t worry, just pick up where you left off. Ultimately, you may find that you are able to maintain your cycling posture for a longer ride without as much low back fatigue as a side benefit of improving your breathing strategy.
Simple advice like this doesn’t suit everyone’s needs, but as a starting point, a simple change like this can often clean up a large amount of dysfunction, especially if practiced consistently. See you on the road!