It goes without saying that cycling is about a lot more than just pedaling hard to win a race. Consistency, technique, breathing… the list goes on. But even the most experienced cyclists sometimes fail to maximize their breathing efficiency to optimize their performance.
Having a proper breathing technique can give you the edge over your competition and make pushing that bit harder come naturally. But to do so, you need to understand how to breathe efficiently and what different breathing techniques entail.
There’s no one-size-fits-all technique that suits every cyclist. The trick is to try several different types and variations to see what helps you reach your full potential, improve your endurance, and get the best possible results.
What Are the Benefits of Efficient Breathing?
Generally, we think of breathing as an involuntary action. It’s something physical that we have no control over. However, as every professional athlete and cyclist knows, that’s only partly true.
In reality, while most of our day-to-day lives involve involuntary breathing, there are ways that we can learn to engage certain parts of our bodies to make breathing a voluntary action too.
To do this, you need to start concentrating on how you breathe.
Your oxygen intake isn’t endless. There’s only so much that our bodies can use. This is called your V02 Max. It refers to the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use at one time. Everybody’s V02 Max differs depending on their fitness levels.
Essentially, when you are trying to make your breathing more efficient by increasing your ability to circulate oxygen, it’s your V02 Max that you’re working to increase. The higher your V02 Max, the fitter you are. So, the better your breathing efficiency, the easier it is to build up your fitness levels. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle.
Active and Passive Breathing
Passive breathing, also referred to as involuntary breathing, uses what’s referred to as your auxiliary muscles. These are the muscles in your chest, neck, and back—your primary respiratory muscles. Active breathing, or voluntary breathing, uses what is referred to as primary muscles—including your diaphragm, obliques, and intercostal muscles.
To get the most out of your breathing, cyclists must focus on taking a circumferential breathing approach. This means engaging all of your respiratory muscles and trying out “full breathing”.
In addition to adopting this approach, you can also train your respiratory muscles to make them stronger in preparation for a ride.
How to Practice Respiratory Muscle Training
Perhaps a slightly unusual type of training, respiratory muscle workouts help cyclists get themselves into the best possible shape for a race.
Respiratory muscle strength can be improved by performing exercises that challenge the unengaged muscles. You can do this using respiratory training devices, or simply by using breathing techniques.
In addition, athletes can improve respiratory muscle strength by conscious breathing during intense exercise, whether they’re cycling or doing any other form of workout.
Benefits of Efficient Breathing Techniques
In addition to building stronger respiratory muscles and having the ability to breathe and circulate oxygen more efficiently, focusing on breathing can help in other aspects of cycling too.
Stress can play a major role in a competitive cyclist’s performance and it can even cause a loss of concentration that can lead to a fall or other injury.
By focusing on a specific breathing technique, cyclists can calm their nerves, shift their focus, and sharpen their concentration. In addition to being mentally beneficial, effective breathing also helps to lower the heart rate.
Over time, practicing breathing techniques during training helps you to become a fitter, healthier, and better cyclist all around.
Breathing Techniques for Cycling
There are many different techniques that cyclists can use to improve their breathing. Here are a few of the most effective ones that are easy to implement.
Take Deep Breaths
The first and most important breathing tip for athletes, in general, is to breathe deeply. Short, superficial breaths will not allow you to get the amount of oxygen that you need to perform at your peak.
By breathing deeply, you can make use of your full lung capacity, and this will optimize your body’s ability to process oxygen.
Breath from Your Stomach
This contributes a bit to taking deep breaths, but breathing from your stomach rather than shallowly from your lungs allows you to take fuller breaths too. Often referred to as belly breathing or diaphragmatic breathing, this technique is one of the most common.
To check whether or not you’re doing this properly, place your hand on the top of your stomach as you breathe in. You should feel your stomach bulge and your chest rise.
Adjust Your Position
The diaphragm plays an important role in effective voluntary/active breathing, so it’s important to remember that your position on your bike can hinder your breathing.
Adopting a more upright position is one of the best ways to allow your diaphragm to function properly. However, while this position may suit a commuter bike, it’s not really ideal for competitive cycling. For instance, time trials often require cyclists hinging at the waist over their handlebars, and this restricts the diaphragm.
Essentially, you need to decide what’s most comfortable, bearing in mind the distances and speeds you’re doing. If your ride allows, a mix of upright and bent forward positions can help to boost your breathing capacity.
Breathe In Through The Mouth And Out Through The Nose
This is an age-old technique, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. By breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose, research shows that the extra time taken for the air to circulate allows for greater oxygen absorption.
Try Ian Jackson’s Technique of “Zooming”
This technique focuses on the fact that passive breathing focuses on breathing in relatively deeply and then simply letting the air out when exhaling. The “Zooming” approach turns this upside down.
While you’re still breathing in deeply, your breath out must be powerful and intentional. Athletes have referred to the technique as “pushing the air out then letting it back in.”
Breathing Your Way To Better Results
The way you breathe can have a major impact on your cycling. Using powerful breathing techniques has the potential to be a game-changer. It may take time and practice, but the results will become evident in a relatively short space of time.
Just like every part of cycling, what you put in, you’ll get out.
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Endurance athlete, professional off-road cyclist, and avid blogger, Tyler Tafelsky participates in long-course multisport and cycling events. Today, Tyler competes in ultra-distance cycling races at the professional level. Since starting Better Triathlete in 2014, he has been the head of content for the site's editorial team. Learn more about Tyler