How Changing Your Breathing Can Improve Your Performance

Harness your lungpower for a stronger, faster cycling experience.

Molly Hurford |

Yogis have been touting the benefits of focused breathing for centuries—but how many cyclists really stop and think about how they’re breathing on the bike, other than just “really, really hard?” Learning to take deep, quality breaths while you pedal can change your entire ride.

That’s because your laboured, high-paced breathing isn’t doing you any favours. Taking shallow breaths from your chest rather than filling your belly with air limits the amount of oxygen coming in and making it to those hungry muscles screaming for more. All this causes your heart rate to rise, your blood pressure to go up, your circulation to reduce, and your stressed body to go into “fight-or-flight” mode, which can make you more emotionally reactive: bad things for the bike.

But how do we change such a fundamental habit? Al Lee, author of Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time, has a few ideas. “Breathing efficiency is like improving your gas mileage: Studies have shown that with a bit of training, you can improve your breathing efficiency into the 10-percent range, which translates into a 3- to 5-percent improvement in performance,” he says. That’s a lot of performance benefit for very little work. Here’s what you should know about maximizing your riding potential through proper breathing, which helps deliver oxygen to those muscles that need it most.

The Importance of Breathing

“Every cell in your body needs a constant and immediate supply of oxygen,” Lee says. We can survive for days without food, but without air? Minutes. “Ninety percent of the energy your body uses comes directly from the breath,” Lee adds. That’s a lot of energy, which means small positive changes in your breathing methods really do add up.

‘Belly Breathing’ Is Your Superpower

One big secret to maximising your oxygen uptake is learning to take deep breaths—belly breaths, if you’ve ever been to a yoga class. The key to deep breathing is recruiting your diaphragm, a flat muscle that extends across the bottom of your ribcage, which helps push as much air through your body as possible. “When you inhale, it flexes downward and creates a vacuum,” he says. “That causes breath to rush in through your nose and mouth to your lungs… It’s like a bellows.”

Your diaphragm can only do its job if make space for it. “Whether you’re sitting at a desk, driving a car, or hunching on the bike, you’re sitting a lot, and that crimps the space that the diaphragm expands into, so we don’t breathe deeply,” Lee says. When we limit how much our diaphragms can function, breath takes the path of least resistance and moves higher and higher into the chest, resulting in shallow breathing.

So before you even focus on your breathing itself, revamp your insides. Spend less time seated;  straighten up to allow your belly and ribs to actually expand; and strengthen those abdominal muscles to get out of the shallow breathing habit.

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Watch a Baby Breathe

If you want to see how you should be breathing, look at someone a lot younger and less wise than yourself. When you watch a baby breathe, says Lee, you see how you should be breathing. “It’s like they have a balloon in their stomach,” he says. “It just expands and falls back so naturally.” That’s what you want to get back to. “We slowly squeeze that out of people as they go into adolescence and adulthood, and we get into a really unhealthy pattern.”

Three In, Three Out

Practice off the bike before you worry about how you breathe on the bike, Lee says. “We normally breathe between 15 and 20 times per minute, but research has shown that if we can get our breaths down to 10 per minute—six seconds per breath—that’s when we get the best benefits from breathing.”

These benefits include lowered blood pressure and heart rate, expanded arteries for better circulation, reduction in inflammation in veins and arteries, a change in the blood chemistry to make it less acidic, and less panic and anxiety thanks to that shift in blood chemistry.

“Slow, deep breathing breaks a panic cycle,” says Lee. “And it boosts your immune system too.” Spend five minutes per day timing your breathing—three seconds in, three seconds out—and Lee believes you’ll start to see a change. “Everyone has five minutes,” Lee says, “Even if you have to hide out in a bathroom stall to get it done! And those five minutes will make those benefits start happening, and make you start doing it in normal daily life, too.” Over time, that practice will become second nature, seeping into how you breathe during everyday life and even on the bike.

Check In With Yourself

When you’re ready to test out your new and improved breathing skills while riding, remember to focus back on your breath every few minutes. If you notice that you’re breathing shallowly, take a few deep breaths to ‘reset’ your breathing.

“Breathing should always feel good and natural,” says Lee. Now, obviously you’ll end up breathing rapidly when hitting harder intervals, but if you can just make your breaths slightly deeper, you’ll make your ride that much more efficient.

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