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======Breathe Better to Ride Better, by Davis Phinney======
(Catch "big air" to increase your energy and relaxation.)
When I asked one of my cycling friends if he though much about his breathing,
he replied, "No, but I'm a firm believer in it."
Breathing is strongly emphasized and controlled in activities such as
swimming, singing and yoga, but it's rarely given a second thought by
cyclists. However, by working on your breathing technique you can
significantly improve your riding. It's another effective way to expand you
endurance and power, not just your lungs.
In fact, most cyclists use only a small percentage of their lungs. Because
they don't concentrate on breathing, they don't learn to maximize lung
One of my mentors, Polish world champion Stan Szozda, spent considerable time
developing his lungs. According to him, the secret to success was breathing,
and the way to improve it was through regular training. Each day he would
inhale to his maximum and hold it, stretching his lungs to their max. He
carried this over to swimming, trying to go as far as possible underwater
(so-called hypoxic training). He believed that lungs lose flexibility and
capacity without training, just as muscles do. Whenever Szozda wound up his
road sprint, you could hear him coming by the sound of his intense
exhalations. He was a master at hilltop finishes and long sprints because of
his ability to control his breathing. Here are four was to improve yours:
Use Your Diaphragm
Anyone who grew up watching the old Superman TV series got the wrong
idea. I figured that by lifting my shoulders and sticking out my chest I
could blow down buildings. I was wrong. The key is the stomach. By pushing
it in and out, not up and down, you are best able to access your full lung
capacity because you are using your diaphragm muscle.
Change Your Rhythm
To gain control of your breathing, concentrate on a specific pattern of
inhaling and exhaling, then coordinate it with our pedal stroke. This idea
has been expounded by numerous people, most notably Ian Jackson in his book
BreathPlay. Skip Hamilton, a senior staff member of the Carpenter/Phinney
Bike Camps and member of Bicycling's team in the '96 Race Across America, has
worked with Ian and simplified the approach.
Hamilton teaches breathing in varied rhythms because most riders tend to
fall into one set pattern wile riding, especially on hard climbs. For
instance, that always exhale with the same-side down-stroke, and they often
breathe in for half a stroke and out for half a stroke. For most people this
means breathing out as they push down with the right leg.
To change the pattern, exhale longer every few breaths. You'll automatically
change your rhythm. Hamilton calls this "switch-side breathing." You will
be breathing out on both the left-and the right-side down-stroke over the
course of a ride. Cyclists at the Bike Camp report that using this simple
technique gives them a feeling of fresher legs-almost like having a n extra
The tactic of switch-side breathing is only a starting point. I have tried
many variations. For instance, by counting pedal strokes I extend the length
of each breath. Eventually you'll become aware of balancing your breathing
and pedaling. Play with any number of patterns and breathing techniques,
Even breathing. Try a rhythm where you take long, even breaths and begin
exhaling at the top of a stroke. Alternate legs each time. By tying your
breath to the pedal stroke you are less likely to exhale incompletely and
start gasping. Use a consistent gear and effort. Try counting-1, 2, 3 in:
4, 5, 6, out.
Quick in, long out. Alexi Grewal, '84 Olympic gold medallist, used to work
on exhaling as slowly as possible-like a weight lifter timing the push phase
with a breath. Because cycling is pretty much a continuous push phase, he
would inhale deeply and quickly (1-2 count) then slowly exhale (3-5 count)
like air leaking from a balloon.
Breathe Through Your Nose
Recently making the rounds in Colorado was a book called "Body, Mind, and
Sport" by John Douillard. It advocates nasal breathing exclusively during
exercise as a way to a Zen-like experience. I have yet to meet anyone who
has achieved enlightenment using this technique, but athletes who have tried
it report that it's a good tool for moderating effort. The amount of air you
can inhale through your nose is limited, so it acts like a natural governor
on your pace. Your performance capacity rises because when you use both your
nose and mouth, efficiency improves.
Legend has it that Apache warriors used to prepare for the rigors of the
desert by taking long runs with their mouths full of water. The reasoning
was sound. Focusing on holding in the water without swallowing taught mental
discipline. Breathing through the nose taught moderation of intensity in
order to endure the distance. Not breathing heavily through the mouth slowed
dehydration from vapor loss. Wisdom of the ancients.
One caution: It is easy to overdo nasal breathing. Be careful or you might
Flare Your Nostrils
Anyone who watches professional sports is bound to notice a piece of tape on
some players' noses. This product, called Breathe Right Nasal Strips, is
making its way into the cycling world, especially off road. The principle is
simple: The device acts like a spring, pulling out the sides of your nose and
opening the nasal passages. How much this actually adds to performance has
yet to be measured. (During efforts at more than 80% of maximum,, 95% of a
rider's breathing takes place through the mouth.
That said, Breathe Right does give you the sensation of more air coming in.
George Hincapie of the Motorola pro team tried it at the Tour DuPont one
spring and was favorably impressed. He only used it one day because he took
some ribbing from fellow riders. Fashion consciousness won out, though the
look hasn't stopped other riders and pro athletes.
What will mastering these techniques do for your cycling? Imagine ascending
a tough hill. As you approach the climb, you focus on breathing. Taking
even, measured breaths, your body stays relaxed. As the hill steepens, you
back off slightly, adjusting your output to match the effort needed. Instead
of tensing, you are fluid-even though the effort gets progressively more
difficult. Because you are closely monitoring your breathing, you are also
keenly aware of your heart rate. In this way, the hill seems to pass
harmlessly under your wheels and you're already rolling towards the next one,
breathing efficiently and recovering.
One final note: Use these breathing techniques as tools, but don't let them
distract from a good ride.