Part III: Cycling and Breathing
Unlike running, which I covered in the first post of this series, if you are cycling with proper form, the relaxation of your diaphragm during your exhale shouldn’t translate into potential injury in your legs. On the bike, your body should stay steady as you keep your core engaged (even on a stationary bike!) and use equal power around the course of your full pedal stroke with both legs working in parallel. As such, your primary focus when it comes to breathing on a bike ensuring that you are using your lungs to maximum potential. Your goal: deep breaths.
Deeper breaths mean that you’re using more of the capacity in your lungs, which moves more oxygen to your muscles. (For those of you who care about VO2 Max, don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that the deeper breathing actually increases oxygen uptake. I just mean there’s more in there to be “uptaken.” “Uptook?” Eh, you get the point.) Those deeper breaths mean that we’re still focused on the diaphragm: when that little wad of muscle below your lungs contracts down, your lungs open up and out. Just like you told your last ex, the diaphragm “needs some space” and can’t be boxed in if your lungs are going to reach their full potential. What does that mean for biking? Well, first of all, don’t squish your diaphragm! Posture impacts your breathing, both on and off the bike. Assuming you’re set up on your bike properly (check with your friendly MINT instructor to make sure you are in the spin room), you shouldn’t have any trouble during your warm up. But when the going gets tough, it’s common to inadvertently change your form in a way that just makes the ride tougher. Take a page from the history books (1836 in San Antonio, Texas to be precise) and “REMEMBER THE DIAPHRAGM!” to avoid hunching over the handlebars and mistakenly rolling in your tummy like a carnitas taco.
How to: When you’re on a road bike, you’ll need to balance your desire for being fast because you’re aerodynamic and being fast because you can still breathe. But as I tell my students, there’s no need to be aerodynamic in the spin room; as fast as your legs go, you still aren’t going anywhere, so feel free to give your diaphragm (and lower back!) a bit of a break by staying a wee bit more upright. With good form that allows the diaphragm to move, your next focus is, naturally, getting it to move. Focus on breathing into the bottom of your lungs. It may help to focus on feeling the breath in your back as well. Your lungs are 3D, after all, and your breathing should be, too!
I’ll talk more about deep breathing in the “breathing and yoga” post, but for cycling, it’s sufficient to check your breathing by putting one hand near your heart and one below your stomach. (Preferably while at a stop if you’re not on a spin bike!) You should feel the hand near your stomach move with or before the hand near your heart. Check in with your shoulders as well; if they are still moving up and down with each breath, odds are high that your breathing is too shallow and you aren’t engaging your full lung capacity. What’s the right pace? The pace that works for you. You may find it helpful to sync your breathing with the rate of revolutions in your pedal stroke, ideally with a longer exhale than inhale – or you may find that that’s just too complicated. So long as you are breathing fully and using the full power of your legs, you’re golden. Don’t overthink it beyond that; you want to still have headspace to enjoy the ride.
Mouth or nose? For most people, it doesn’t matter. But if you want to mimic the elite cyclists in a way other than wearing ridiculous (but hilarious) jerseys, you can try breathing through your nose as you exhale in order to slow your rate of exhale, giving your lungs a longer time to extract oxygen. (My thoughts in the first post about the red coffee stirrer still apply.)