Take a moment to observe your breath – its rhythm, its depth, and the nature in which it travels in and out of your body. Is it shallow? Constricted? Rapid? Heavy? Or is it slow, fluid and easy? Do you feel it mostly in your chest, or do you feel it in the expansion of your belly? Do you breathe through your nose or your mouth, or both?
How many times do you consciously focus your attention on your breathing while on a ride? Probably not many until you are halfway up an epic climb and about to bust a lung.
The truth is that most cyclists, runners and other types of endurance athletes don’t think about their breath until they run out of it and find themselves gasping for air. That is, unless they regularly practice yoga.
Yogis already know the endless benefits of focused, controlled breathing, but few athletes know that many yogic breathing techniques can significantly improve their performance on the bike and attenuate some of the suffering during their next sprint for QOM (or KOM).
As you can probably already see, there are a lot of things going on when you breathe, and a lot of factors contribute to the quality of your breath. If you are not paying attention to your breath, you are ignoring one of your most valuable performance tools as a cyclist.
If you want to take advantage of your entire aerobic capacity, you need to learn how to breathe efficiently. This is a huge way yoga can benefit endurance athletes.
First, some breathing physiology.
We have all experienced what it feels like to pass lactic threshold during exercise (i.e. when you start to switch from aerobic to anaerobic metabolic pathways during exercise) - ventilation rate, or breathing rate, increases and you might start panting in an attempt to supply the muscles with oxygen.
This type of rapid, labored breathing which typically occurs when the heart rate starts to spike is a relatively inefficient way to deliver oxygen to your muscles and remove metabolic waste like carbon dioxide. If you pay attention to your breath while you are gasping for air, you will notice that it is constricted to your chest and upper lungs, which means you are not utilizing the entire capacity of your lungs to take in oxygen. Oxygen also takes more time to diffuse from the air your breath into the blood flowing through your lung’s capillaries than carbon dioxide takes to move from your blood into the air you exhale. Shallow breathing therefore doesn’t give oxygen enough time to diffuse into your blood, so by the time you exhale, you carry valuable oxygen (along with carbon dioxide) out with your breath.
In addition, shallow, hastened breathing triggers the body’s sympathetic nervous system or “fight or flight” response, creating tension in the muscles and a causing a hormonal environment in the body that will cause you to tire and burn out faster. That’s no bueno on a bike ride if you are trying to make it very far.
Want to know your secret breathing weapon on the bike?
Or “belly” breathing, as us yogis call it.
First, what is the diaphragm? The diaphragm is a dome-shaped skeletal muscle that sits below the lungs and divides the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity in your torso. It does up to 80% of the work when you breathe at rest, and it is also the most energy-efficient muscle that you use to breathe. This means that it takes more energy from your body to breathe when you rely more on secondary respiratory muscles like the intercostal and sternocleidomastoid muscles than when you use the diaphragm to its full capacity. This is important to note because endurance sports are all about energy conservation and efficiency.
The effectiveness of training respiratory muscles to enhance endurance exercise performance has been repeatedly demonstrated in the scientific literature (1-5), and many of these studies used cyclists as test subjects. In a study conducted by Holm and colleagues (1), cyclists and triathletes were trained to breathe more slowly and deeply. With the use of a metronome to monitor pace, the athletes’ breathing rate was gradually reduced over the course of 4 weeks. Those athletes who received respiratory training improved the endurance capacity of their respiratory muscles (such as the diaphragm) by 12%, which is huge.
If you can learn how to breathe using your diaphragm on and off of the bike, you will become a more efficient rider by supplying more oxygen to your muscles, improving the endurance capacity of your breathing muscles, and keeping you below your lactic threshold. You will also recover more quickly during intense bouts of exercise like sprints and climbs.
Exercise: How to belly breathe
Lie on your back with your knees bent so that your feet are on the ground, like you are setting up for bridge pose.
Place one hand on your belly so it rests on or near your navel, and one hand on your chest, about where your sternum lies.
Close your eyes and pay attention to your breath. Which hand moves up and down more? If you feel your hand on your chest moving more, you are restricting your breath to your upper lungs and not breathing efficiently. If your hand on your belly is moving up and down, great job! You are using your diaphragm to breathe. Your goal in the following exercise is to feel most if not all of the movement in your lower hand, the hand on your belly, and little to no movement in your hand on your chest.
Now begin to relax your stomach and breathe in deeply and slowly through your nose, allow your belly to distend and your lower hand to rise. Visualize the breath moving down towards your lower hand, allowing it to naturally rise. This shouldn’t feel forced but it might feel unnatural if you are not used to breathing this way. At the same time, try to keep the hand on your chest from rising when you breathe in. The more deeply you are able to breathe into your belly, or diaphragm, the less the hand on your chest will move.
Then, while keeping the hand on your chest still, exhale slowly through your nose or pursed lips. Don’t force the breath out or contract your abdominal muscles – let it happen naturally. The pressure that the diaphragm creates in your abdominal cavity during your inhale will create a force pushes the air back out of your body when you stop breathing in, so there is no need to recruit additional muscles to expel your air.
The key to getting any benefit out of this exercise is consistent practice. Practice is what creates the neural pathways in your brain that make this type of breathing more automatic and there when you actually need it. It only takes 5 minutes a day. I like to set an alarm on my watch (your phone or FitBit works too), that reminds me throughout the day to breathe. Even if it is 30 seconds at a time. It all adds up and can make a profound difference. Added bonus: this will also reduce your stress levels throughout your day, which most of us really need.
Taking it to the bike:
Diaphragmatic breathing on the bike is a little harder, which is why it is important to practice at home or during your yoga practice. Due to the rounding of the upper body, the belly gets restricted, especially if you aren’t wearing bibs. On you next ride, focus on taking fewer but deeper breaths into your belly. It’s best to do this on a recovery ride in zone 1 or 2, and gradually practice in higher zones over time.
Remember, this takes time and patience. Eventually, as your brain starts to rewire itself, it will become more natural and you will have to think about it less. Trust in the biology and soon it will pay off.
Try it and let me know how it works for you.