Recent research examines performance-enhancing cyclist breathing technique claims and sorts the science from the hot air.
Understanding how something as automatic and vital as breathing is shrouded in mystery around endurance athletes’ performance is puzzling. You see the conundrum if you saw runners crossing the finish line of the Boston or London Marathons recently with their mouths taped shut.
In the continual quest to improve, some athletes question whether breathing better is possible. They will purchase gadgets touting improved time to exhaustion and employ techniques that go against the norms of what feels right.
Nasal breathing is en vogue with endurance athletes who are adding breathwork specialists like Patrick McKeown to their performance team. “If you’re breathing too hard or too fast, you can get respiratory muscle fatigue, the diaphragm gets tired, it steals blood from the legs,” McKeown says. “Breathing through the nose conserves energy, it is more efficient. Over time, it improves the tolerance to carbon dioxide build-up so oxygen delivery to the tissues is improved. An athlete running with their mouth closed would have increased oxygen delivery to their muscles, even though they’re taking less air in.”
McKeown’s business, Oxygen Advantage, has trained 3,000 breathing instructors worldwide, educating and training tennis players, boxers, cyclists, and footballers for a decade, opening their eyes to the merits of nasal breathing.
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 long before we can no longer go on.
If we delay the time to reach the tipping point, we will be more efficient and improve our performance. Recent research has piqued the curiosity of competitive endurance athletes, and for a good reason. However, an extensive March 2023 review published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology questions the science and may call into question the return policy for your breathing toys.
Cyclist Breathing Technique Tested—Nose Breathing
Taping your mouth closed while cycling seems extreme, but so does a change to how you’ve been breathing all your life. Researchers from Colorado State University believe the change is good for endurance athlete performance and cyclist breathing technique.
In a 2018 study, the authors found a 22 percent decrease in breath frequency when the subjects were breathing nasally compared to breathing through their mouths. The group of 10 runners studied over six months had no reduction in their oxygen consumption. The athletes’ respiratory rate and breaths per minute decreased while oxygen intake and carbon dioxide removal 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 authors suggest the benefits of nasal breathing include:
- Reduced exercise-induced bronchoconstriction.
- Improved ventilatory efficiency.
- Lower physiological economy for a given level of work.
By becoming proficient in nasal breathing, less stress is placed on an athlete’s breathing and may even improve the efficiency of your respiratory system.
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.
Despite the above evidence and the staunch backer of the nose-breathing debate, the recent review’s authors aren’t convinced. The scientists summarize, “Nasal breathing is feasible during submaximal exercise and even maximal exercise after extensive habituation, but there is little-to-no data supporting a subsequent benefit on exercise capacity in healthy individuals.”
Cyclist Breathing Technique Tested—Systematic and Rhythmic Breathing
A recent study by researchers from the University of Utah proved that rhythmic breathing while running improved respiratory efficiency. By reducing stress on the respiratory system, breathing in time with your running gait minimizes the effort of ventilatory muscles, decreases their level of fatigue, and improves the efficiency of oxygen transport and exchange.
The pedal stroke is rhythmic. Combining nasal breathing with the rhythmic timing of your in and exhales may have a similar benefit. It’s challenging to control your breathing while riding at high intensity and requires practice.
Cyclist breathing techniques involving training yourself to breathe in time with your pedal stroke will improve efficiency and allow you to become more relaxed.
While riding comfortably, 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 intensity levels. 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—the sensation of air hunger. However, if you monitor your heart rate, you will see it steadily decrease by a few beats per minute as your respiration becomes more efficient.
Over time, the researchers contend that your CO2 levels will be optimal with repetition and training. Without thinking about it, you will become proficient at nose breathing at varied intensities.
However, the authors of the recent review don’t think so for athletes. Beyond the benefits of deep breathing in reducing stress, improving sleep quality, facilitating recovery, and the associated physiological effects, like increased heart rate variability, decreased resting heart rate, and reduced resting blood pressure, the performance benefits are inconclusive.
Cyclist Breathing Technique Tested—Respiratory Muscle Training (RMT)
The widely held belief by researchers that an athlete’s respirator system is “overbuilt,” meaning that it has gas left in the tank for the ventilatory demands of exercise, is no longer taken for granted. In a 2020 summary published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers examine instances when an athlete’s respiratory muscles fail to meet expectations.
As a cyclist breathes heavier while riding, there is increased strain on the muscles that help us to inhale and exhale. By training the breathing muscles, like the diaphragm, the intercostals between the ribs, and the abdominals, the ability to inhale and exhale improves and makes it less likely to fatigue.
Training methods involve two types: resistance training and endurance training.
- Resistance training – Inspiratory Pressure Threshold Loading (IPTL) is a commonly used, researched, and validated method of RMT— athletes breathe through a device (such as the Powerbreathe) that contains a pressure-loaded inspiratory valve and an unloaded expiratory flap valve.
- Endurance training – Voluntary Isocapnic Hyperventilation (VIH) requires athletes to maintain high respiration levels for up to 40 mins. It utilizes a hyperventilation method that employs a partial re-breathing circuit to prevent hypocapnia (reduced CO2 in the blood from hyperventilation).
The review’s authors give the cyclist breathing technique test of Respiratory Muscle Training a thumbs up. “If applied with the appropriate frequency, intensity, and duration, RMT can improve strength and endurance of respiratory muscles,” summarize the authors, “and there is convincing evidence of performance enhancement in athletes.”
Cyclist Breathing Technique Tested—Nasal Dilators
Nasal dilators, adhesive strips that adhere to the outside of your nose, and others that insert inside your nostrils claim to eliminate snoring and help with sleep apnea, but do they improve endurance performance?
Researchers from the Colorado State study believe that there is something to nasal flair devices if you are a nasal breather. Using 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.
Not so say the authors of the review. While there is evidence of improved airflow and sleep quality, they found no objective performance benefits in athletes’ heart rate, perceived effort, exercise capacity, or power output.
Cyclist Breathing Technique Tested—Commercial Oxygen in a Can
The short answer from the review’s authors is, “The proposed benefit of acute inhalation of canned oxygen has low plausibility, and there is no valid evidence of beneficial effects.” Sorry.
Conclusion—Cyclist Breathing Techniques Tested
Breathing is as vital to life as pedaling is to cycling. Can the two be tweaked to make us better at both?
The benefits of breathing through your nose during everyday life are well documented. It filters, it warms, it humidifies the air. Hence, it’s relatively clean when it reaches your lower airways, and the conditions are right for oxygen to transfer across the blood-gas barrier and into your body. Translating the benefits during exercise, when the demands on our respiratory system are great, is challenging.
Like stronger leg muscles push the pedals harder for longer, stronger breathing muscles move air more efficiently and effectively.
It may be worth the effort to devote time to improving this area of our performance. It takes work 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.
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. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, Endurance.biz, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!