Forget featherweight frames, aerodynamic handlebars, or weight training. The next time you lace up and brace yourself for a jaunt out on your trusty cycle – whether cruising over mountainous terrain or clambering steep tarmac ascents – pay attention to the crucial differences breathing can make to your endurance.
Changes to lung mechanics
Cycling is a unique exercise. Each pedal stroke trains, challenges, and fine-tunes our lungs. By hunching over on our saddles, we compress our thoracic cavity and expiratory muscles, increasing demand on our breathing. The lungs are powerful engines that fuel our body with oxygen, which is combusted by our muscle tissues to release energy. They also help blow off the waste-product carbon dioxide, which turns our blood temporarily acidic during energy production.
Studies of both amateur and professional cyclists under fixed cadences (rotations per minute) reveal profound changes to our breathing physiology during cycling. Oxygen consumption (VO2), tidal volume (a measure of the total volume of lung expansion), and breathing frequency all increase with cycling. Professional cyclists, however, tend to have longer expiratory times at maximal exercise intensities, and the frequency of their breathing tends to increase to a lesser extent. Scientists believe this form of efficient breathing can improve blood flow to leg muscles, as those involved in breathing are thought to compete for blood flow and oxygen.
Breathing might seem automatic and effortless, but is, in fact, a highly dynamic process, and particularly so during exercise. There’s no secret why scientists call it work of breathing. Each time you breathe, you recruit muscles in your diaphragm, which pushes down and increases the available volume in your thoracic cavity, allowing your lungs to expand and draw in air.
This pulls blood into your heart at the same time. At rest, the diaphragm tends to move down by 1 cm. This can increase by up to 10 cm during exercise, and the movement accounts for 70% of your total tidal volume. A lifetime of poor habits can decrease the efficiency of your diaphragmatic muscles – but like any other in your body, these can also be trained.How can you improve your breathing whilst biking?
Respiratory muscle training (RMT) describes exercises, usually focused on inspiration, that is proven to reduce levels of inspiratory muscle fatigue and increase endurance across a range of sport. In the research environment, this involves repetitive exercises of fast breathing (hyperpnoea) over short, focused periods of 30–40 minutes, or breathing against devices of high resistance (threshold loading).
But such measures aren’t practicable for everybody, and you can start off simply. When off the bike – whether at your desk, in the kitchen, or even in the shower – practice taking slow, deep, belly breaths that help you maximize your lung volume. Take a yoga class, and focus on your breath and pushing your diaphragm downwards. When you next hit the road, try to replicate and maintain this full-bodied breathing style. This mentality can turn exercise into a pleasurable, rather than breathless, pursuit.
At the end of the day, tried-and-tested aerobic endurance training based on principles of increasing aerobic endurance, VO2 max, and lactate threshold, will always have its place in any robust training arsenal. But especially for those competing at high-performance levels, taking a moment to catch your breath can make all the difference.