You will breathe easier and get faster by perfecting your technique through breathing exercises and practice on the bike.
I’ve never been one to pay much attention to the way I breathe. In my mind, why burn any mental matches on a vital process that my body does automatically. It seems like that is one area that my subconscious should have covered.
Especially when I am riding, I can barely breathe at all, most of the time. To then have to focus on the way I do it. There is not a good chance.
I’ve ridden at altitude. Where the air was so thin that taking a sip from my bottle sent me over the edge of oxygen debt. I didn’t enjoy the feeling.
It is also likely why I never took to triathlons. I grew up on the ocean and had been swimming all my life. I’m not great at it, but when you put drops of water in the way of a deep breath, the fins fall off.
Those airflow reduction masks scare me a lot! Not to mention holding my breath while riding to mimic the effect of riding at altitude.
Recent Research Makes a Strong Argument
Recent research into the subject has piqued my curiosity, however. As with all of the other mental and physical facets of training I focus on, I’m all-in if it takes a bit of extra effort to make a marginal gain.
The relationship between cycling intensity and the rate of breathing is relatively straightforward. The harder you ride, the more you breathe to replenish the muscles of its oxygen debt. We reach the limits of oxygen debt and can no longer supply the muscles effectively when we call upon our anaerobic system. Any cyclist knows this doesn’t last for long.
If we can delay the time to reach the tipping point, we will be more efficient, improving our performance. Researchers from Colorado State University believe the answer lies in an athlete’s ability to become an effective nasal breather.
Nose Breathing is the Key
In a 2018 study, the authors found a 22 percent decrease in breath frequency when the subjects were breathing nasally compared to when they were breathing through their mouths. The group of 10 runners studied over six months had no decrease in their oxygen consumption.The athletes’ respiratory rate and breaths per minute decreased while oxygen intake and removal of carbon dioxide from the bloodstream increased.
The athletes were taking in enough oxygen to meet their demands with significantly less effort. By breathing through the nose, an athlete can decrease their flow rate, promote a slower filling of the lungs, and achieve a more efficient deep breath. The need for fewer breaths reduces the energy expenditure of respiration, and your body uses it elsewhere.
The researchers believe that even recreational athletes benefit from nasal breathing at all levels of exercise intensity, but it takes practice. To fully realize the potential of nasal breathing requires a period spent adapting to the method.
Athletes of all Levels Benefit From Nose Breathing
A 2020 review by the same research group confirmed that exclusive nasal breathing is feasible for most people at moderate levels of aerobic exercise without specific practice. The study demonstrated that athletes might achieve this breathing approach during heavy and maximal levels of aerobic exercise following a sustained period of practice and training.
The authors suggest the benefits of nasal breathing include a reduction in exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, improved ventilatory efficiency, and lower physiological economy for a given level of work. In short, by becoming proficient in nasal breathing, less stress is placed on and may even improve the efficiency of your respiratory system.
Rhythmic Nasal Breathing is the Best of Both Worlds
A recent study by researchers from the University of Utah proved that rhythmic breathing while running improved respiratory efficiency. By reducing stress upon the respiratory system, the practice of breathing in time with your running gait reduces the effort of ventilatory muscles, decreases their level of fatigue, and improves the efficiency of oxygen transport and exchange.
Of course, running isn’t cycling, but the pedal stroke is rhythmic. Combining nasal breathing with the rhythmic timing of your in and exhales is a great way to practice. Here’s how.
Practice This Nose Breathing Exercise While Cycling
It is a challenge to control your breathing while riding at high intensity. Training yourself to breathe in time with your pedal stroke will become automatic and allow you to be more relaxed.
While riding at a comfortable pace, inhale through your nose for three-pedal strokes. Then, exhale through the nose for six pedal strokes. Concentrate on inhaling deeply from the diaphragm and relax your chest and shoulders.
Experiment with the number of pedal strokes on each inhale and exhale that best suits your riding style and fitness at varying levels of intensity. Try to lengthen your breaths for as long as possible.
It will be difficult at first to refuse the signals from your brain telling you to breathe faster. However, if you monitor your heart rate, you will see it steadily decrease a few beats per minute as your respiration becomes more efficient.
Over time, your CO2 levels will be optimal with repetition and training, and you will become proficient at nose breathing at varied intensity without even thinking about it.
Try This Nose Breathing Cycling Trick
Another way to train yourself to become a proficient habitual nose breather is to time your pedal stroke with your breathing pattern. Inhale through your nose as you push down on each pedal. That’s two inhales per rotation.
Then exhale three times during the next one and a half rotations. Then repeat two inhale surges followed by three exhales. You will find that each inhale and exhale surge is timed to when you push the pedals through the 3 o’clock position.
Over time, and through a trained awareness of your breathing pattern, you will become more relaxed and efficient. But it takes practice and dedication.
How About Those Breathing Strips That You Put on Your Nose?
The researchers from Colorado State believe that there is merit in nasal flair devices if you are a nasal breather. The use of nasal dilation devices can increase the work intensity achieved during exercise while breathing nasally by increasing ventilation volume.
In addition, the authors identified an increase in nasal ventilation using dilator strips that resulted in less resistance to nasal airflow. With less airflow restriction, the subjects increased their tolerance to submaximal exercise and were more likely to maintain effective nasal breathing.
Conclusion - It Takes Work, But it May Be Worth the Effort
The benefits of breathing through your nose during the course of normal life are well documented. Translating the benefits during exercise, when the demands on our respiratory system are great, is not an easy task.
If we devote time to focus on improving this area of our performance, it may be worth the effort. Nothing comes easy for the cyclist that strives to maximize their potential. It requires hard work to train, be consistent in making sensible nutrition choices, and be disciplined in recovery.
Add breathing to the list. It may be the one!
Have you made the effort to become an effective nasal breather while riding? Comment below. Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit, and through its work and the pages of this site, Chris is committed to helping others with his bike. His gain cave is located on the North Fork of Long Island where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two college student children.