Cycling in an excellent sport for cardiovascular conditioning, and thanks to its versatile nature -- you can do it indoors on a stationary bike or outdoors on a road or mountain bike -- it is a year-round way to stay active and aerobically fit. Using certain breathing techniques can enhance your cycling efforts and let you to get the most out of your workouts.
The simple, oft-ignored act of breathing can mean the difference between a workout that rejuvenates, or one that results in unnecessary fatigue or a feeling of not having tapped into the body's true potential. Deep, restorative breathing is crucial to an exercise program like cycling which relies on the successful transport of oxygen to hard-working muscles. According to George Dallam, a sports physiologist and regular contributor to "Performance Conditioning Cycling," metered, focused, intentional breathing that floods the muscles with nourishing oxygen and helps control heart rate can lead to significant functional improvement on the bike.
Diaphragmatic breathing involves filling the upper and lower lobes of the lungs and emptying them in a controlled fashion by expanding and contracting the rib cage in both a lateral and posterior direction. Sports physiology expert Rael Isacowitz notes that not only does it send invigorating oxygen through the body, but also strengthens the muscles of the rib cage and incorporates the abdominals in a symbiotic relationship that stabilizes the body's core -- crucial for maintaining good posture and stability on the bike. Practice this type of breathing off the bike first. Sit upright in a comfortable chair, place the palms of your hands lightly on each side of your rib cage and inhale deeply through your nose; as your lungs fill and your rib cage expands, actively focus on pushing your ribs against your hands. As you exhale, feel the rib cage return to its regular position. Repeat 10 times, take a break and then do two more sets of 10 with your hands still on your ribs. Next, release your hands and experience this movement without the direct rib-hand feedback loop. Throughout this practice, keep your shoulders and spine relaxed and your chin parallel to the floor. Eventually, you will be able to accomplish the mechanics of this breathing technique while on the bike.
Imagine you are cranking the pedals and your heart is pumping with the effort, causing your breath to come in spurts. The tendency in this scenario is to breathe through the mouth, which is not the most effective method for improving cycling performance. As an extension of diaphragmatic, full-lobe breathing, breathe exclusively through your nose during the high-intensity intervals of your ride. This may feel strange at first, so practice initially on the flats or on an easy setting on your indoor bike. According to triathlon coach Lisa Engles, breathing through the nose triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, shifting from a keyed-up sympathetic nervous system response of fight-or-flight to a physiological state that "calms the mind and rejuvenates the body," Engles explains. In his book, "Body, Mind, and Sport," Dr. John Douillard, a chiropractor and former professional triathlete, emphasizes that nasal breathing is superior to mouth breathing because the latter is a classic, conditioned response to stress, and stress must be managed for optimal sports performance. If you must breathe through your mouth for the sake of comfort or you feel you can't get enough air through your nose, alternate mouth and nose breathing, and work up to increasing the frequency with which you breathe through your nose.
Mountain biker can also benefit from enhanced breathing habits, most notably in their ability to quickly shift the breath as the terrain dictates. For example, when facing a steep uphill section on a narrow single-track, use controlled nasal breathing or a combination of mouth and nasal breathing, while a straight stretch of road is the perfect place for a diaphragmatic breathing pattern. Another thing to consider is altitude. According to mountain biking expert Doug Dalton, the higher elevations often associated with mountain biking can leave you winded and gasping for air. He recommends being mindful of the breath and working to balance inhalation and exhalation, with an emphasis on emptying the lungs of "stale" air as completely as possible.
Michelle Kodis has been a writer and editor for more than two decades. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, is the author of nine books and has contributed articles to various magazines, newspapers and blogs. She is also a certified Pilates instructor and studies canine therapeutic massage/acupressure.