By Team ICG® Master Trainer Jim Karanas
Cycling performance is all about oxygen. Muscle cells need oxygen to burn fuel and produce the energy necessary to power the muscle contractions that move us. This is known as cellular respiration.
All indoor-cycling instructors have received rudimentary training around proper breathing on the bicycle, but it”™s rarely the focus of a class. Think about it. Can you create and lead a class profile that focuses just on breathing exercises and make it compelling for 45-60 minutes?
OK, you”™re thinking, “Why would I want to?” But evidence indicates that we can improve breathing capacity with “inspiratory” muscle training and improve both performance and comfort. In “Endurance training of respiratory muscles improves cycling performance in fit young cyclists” by Holm et al (2004), riders rode a simulated 40-kilometer race on a computerized exercise bike after weeks of inspiratory training. Neither control group improved, but the experimental group rode 4.7 percent faster.
The trained riders found breathing hard more comfortable. The respiratory muscles didn't tire, so they filled and emptied their lungs more often with less fatigue. The fact that the athletes could breathe harder with no change in effort is an important finding because many people stop exercising due to severe shortness of breath.
Have you ever wondered what creates the need to breathe?
Of course, we breathe because we need O2. But the urge to breathe is triggered by a high concentration of CO2 in the blood, not a lack of oxygen. When we hyperventilate, we”™re trying to dispel that CO2 and balance the pH of our blood. Inspiratory muscle training improves not only breathing capacity but also tolerance for CO2.
So where do you start? Some of the following techniques may help.
1. Integrate nasal breathing in your on-the-bike training.
Start with a short, low-intensity section of a ride. See how it feels to breathe only through your nose. Your anxiety may rise a bit with the sensation of not getting enough air. Carbon dioxide receptors adjust to this in time, however, and the urgency disappears.
2. Develop a regular practice of conscious breathing.
Develop a closer relationship with your breath. Don”™t think about your breath more or try to control it. Just become aware of it. As you warm up on the bicycle, at what moment do you first become aware of your breath? Be more fully in the experience of breathing — really feel the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body.
3. Learn diaphragmatic breathing.
As you concentrate on deep breathing, you push your diaphragm down and the abdominals out. If you”™re doing it correctly, your abs will expand more than your chest. I”™m amazed when I hear an indoor cycling instructor still telling students to “hold their abdominals firm” to support the forward flexed body position on a bicycle. (Support for forward flexion comes from the posterior core muscles, but that will be another post.)
4. Synchronize your breathing with your pedaling.
Try to synchronize your respiratory rhythm with your pedal cadence. Start by focusing on pedaling. Once you establish your cadence, organize your breathing with the turning of the pedals. Inhale and exhale for the same number of pedal strokes. This gives you a focal point while you”™re cycling and keeps your breathing calm and regular, which moves more oxygen.
5. Change your rhythm.
Once you”™ve established your inhale/exhale pattern and coordinated it with your pedal stroke, change it. This idea has been expounded by numerous sources, most notably Ian Jackson in his book BreathPlay. I”™ve used BreathPlay techniques for a long time and find them helpful. To strengthen the inspiratory muscles, you must do things that cause you discomfort.
The central BreathPlay skill is “upside-down breathing.” It involves pushing the air out and letting it in, instead of sucking it in and letting it out. The change is simple but profound. First, settle into a cadence. Then explore pulling your belly back for a three-count out-breath and relaxing it for a two-count, passive in-breath. Emphasize the three/two pattern. Next, fit the breathing pattern to your pedal stroke: three turns on the exhale and two turns on the inhale.
The 3/2 count is an easy way to start learning odd-count upside-down breathing patterns. Once you feel comfortable with the out/in 3/2 count, practice until you have the same level of comfort with a 5/2 count, a 2/1 count, a 4/1 count, a 4/3 count, and a 6/3 count. Whether you're out on the road or (in the studio), you'll need to be able to change breathing gears to accommodate changing work rates, and this repertoire of breathing patterns will give you a breathing gearbox. - Ian Jackson
Long-held patterns of breathing may actually have separated us from some of the natural strength, calmness, and energy we have within us. Changing them could reconnect us with those. Is anything more fundamental in our moment-to-moment experience, consciousness and awareness than our breath?
Originally posted 2012-05-14 08:50:35.
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“But the urge to breathe is triggered by a high concentration of CO2 in the blood, not a lack of oxygen.” That is so true Jim. A cycling coach had me focused on very complete exhales to ensure I was completely emptying my lungs. He explained to me that the sensation of needing to breathe was a limiting factor in how fast & far you could ride.