So you want to have the lung capacity of Lance Armstrong? The first step is to learn how to breathe properly. Breathing is intimately connected to many systems in the body and without perfectly-dialed breathing patterns, fighting for air at the top of a mountain pass or at the end of an all-out effort will be much more debilitating than it needs to be.
During exercise, muscles produce more carbon dioxide, which increases the acidity level in the bloodstream. Breathing helps to regulate the acid-base balance by increasing oxygen intake in these situations, so athletes need to try to maintain optimal breathing patterns even when breathing is distressed.
In addition to helping you stay calm on the bike, correct breathing patterns have many benefits. They help increase blood flow to the brain, improve oxygen delivery to muscle tissues, decrease muscle tension and enhance lower back and core stability. Another benefit is a decrease in the need for other muscles to compensate and work harder when key muscle groups used during exercise get fatigued due to oxygen debt.
Breathing and core control
Being out of the saddle often comes at a time when breathing properly is more difficult: at the top of a strenuous climb or the end of a sprint, for example. Consider how much force is transferred to the handlebars through the core and from the legs when hammering out of the saddle. The core muscles are what connect the upper body to the lower body and the stiffer a rider can be through the torso, the more power that will be transferred to the pedals with less energy lost to inefficient movement.
Diaphragmatic breathing = Correct breathing
When inhaling, the diaphragm should move downward. This allows room for air to enter the lungs, and happens while the abs eccentrically contract, which means they are lengthening and feel as though they are relaxing. The opposite is true when exhaling – the abs should tighten. Both are contractions, but different types. For riders without proper breathing patters, this sequence may not be true, which can have a negative domino effect in the body.
When the ribcage position is optimal, the greatest amount of vacuum can be developed in the chest cavity, which increases the amount of air that can enter the lungs. Optimal ribcage positioning is neutral, somewhere between being hunched over and having a perfectly straight back with the chest puffed out like a bird during mating season. Both of these postural distortions will decrease the available space for the diaphragm to recede into the abdomen, which restricts the lungs’ expansion capacity.
Optimal breathing patterns and rib cage positioning lead to a stiffer core and enabling greater power transfer from the legs, subsequently increasing bike speed. Five common signs of improper breathing are: Significant upper chest movement with quiet breathing; Inward belly movement when inhaling; Holding your breath; Often producing a sigh when exhaling; and excessively rapid breathing.
Lie on your stomach with your forehead resting on the backs of your hands. Inhale for four seconds through your nose. You should notice your expanding belly lifting your hips. Be sure to focus on your ribs expanding laterally, too – diaphragmatic breathing involves the expansion of the ribcage 360 degrees around the spine, which is not the same as belly breathing. Exhale for at least six seconds and repeat. Perform up to five sets of 10 repetitions.
Cyclists typically have restricted thoracic spines because of a slumped forward position on the bike. This can negatively affect breathing, so be sure to spend time daily working on mid- and upper-back mobility, which can be done, among other ways, by foam rolling the mid-back.