Do you often experience shortness of breath, increased heart rate, or extreme body stress on your ride? If so, you might need to correct your breathing habit. A lot of riders are focusing on equipment and techniques like pedaling, braking, shifting, and steering, but neglecting the most fundamental one--breathing. In cycling and many other exercises, the main provider of the energy you need is the oxidative phosphorylation system, in which sufficient oxygen is needed to energize your muscles. Improper breathing can hardly take in enough oxygen to meet that need, resulting in symptoms like dizziness or abnormal sweating.
All that said, you must be doubting what else can be done to inhale more oxygen given that you are already breathing really hard. In fact, that kind of high-paced, labored breathing can’t do you any favor but cause unnecessary energy loss. Because when you breathe rapidly, you are breathing with your chest, which only exchanges a little upper part of the air in your lung rather than fully refilling it with fresh air. The more rapidly you breathe, the shallower it is, retaining more carbon dioxide at the bottom of your lung while letting in less oxygen. On the other hand, insufficient oxygen raises your heart rate and blood pressure, and reduces circulation, making you even more oxygen needing. Thus, you are stuck in a vicious circle of hypoxia.
To avoid shallow breaths and maximize your oxygen uptake, you need to learn about belly breath (abdominal respiration)--the key to deep breaths. Abdominal respiration is done through the diaphragm, a flat muscle extending across the bottom of your ribcage. When you inhale, your diaphragm flexes downwards and squeezes the organs below to make room for the lung, creating a vacuum that draws in plenty of air like bellows. Conversely, when you exhale, it flexes upwards and squeezes your lung to expel as much as possible so that the carbon dioxide stagnating at the bottom can spit out. The whole procedure brings a full exchange of air in your lung. The following part will give you some more specific instructions on how to make deep breaths in riding.
Close your mouth first, take a deep breath with your nose till you can inhale no more, then exhale slowly with your mouth and close your mouth afterward. Repeat this 9 times, followed by a few natural breaths with your nose, then you are free to start.
On flat road
When riding on a flat road, your breath should remain similar to what you do before riding. Breathe with your nose and keep your mouth closed. It is recommended to roll up your tongue to reach your upper palate. When you inhale, you should feel your abdomen contracting inward, and when you exhale, you should feel it protruding outward, so that you know you are breathing as deeply as possible. It’s fine if you are unable to keep that up at the beginning, just keep it in mind. You will get used to it in time.
Compared to flat roads, climbing consumes more energy. Although abdominal respiration can provide a considerable amount of oxygen, its pace is relatively slow to meet the need in this situation. So we need to change our breathing patterns. In the beginning, the old pattern still works. When you find yourself breathing more and more rapidly, you should speed up your breath instead of taking every breath fully, deeply, and slowly. But still, remember to inhale with your nose and exhale with your mouth. Under no circumstance should you inhale with your mouth. Without the filtering, heating, and humidifying of your nasal cavity, cold, dry, and stale air directly enters the airway, damaging its mucosa, and leading to capillary burst or even inflammation in worse cases. Sometimes the cold air can also enter your stomach and cause spasms. All that having been done, if you still feel out of breath, don’t push yourself. Just get off and wheel the bike along.
The riding position is also a noteworthy influence on your breathing. The diaphragm can only do its job if there is space. The space it needs for expansion is easily crimped when we hunch on the bike. Therefore, it will be easier to breathe if you slightly raise your chest and stretch your body.
Try these methods in your next ride. Forming a good breathing habit can benefit not only your riding but many other exercises and your daily life.