While I was struggling not to get lapped in my last cyclocross race of the season (Dairy Queen Double Dipper), I noticed my breathing was out of control! I mean, I was gasping for air and dyin’ out there! This got me talking to myself, which is always a good sign of solid mental health. “Breathe man, c’mon breathe! In, out, in, out!” I kept telling myself and to my surprise, I found when I focused on this, I felt better, though maybe only by a fraction and only until I hit the next hill. So, up popped the obvious questions, am I breathing correctly? Do the pros know a breathing technique of some kind that I don’t and if there was a way for me to improve my breathing technique, could it make me a faster rider?
Around this time I had also tried a random breathing experiment. David Blaine set a world record for holding his breath a while back and Tim Ferris had the instructions on his blog on how this worked. Essentially, you went through a series of deep breathing exercises that loaded up your body with oxygen. When I tried it, I immediately improved my time from 45 seconds to just over 2 ½ minutes! I was stunned as I sat there holding my breath, feeling so calm and comfortable when I knew that I should have been passing out! It was a strange experience but this got me thinking even more; what I had done with those breathing exercises was super-load my system with oxygen (not to be confused with blood doping) that my body could use for an extended period long after my last breath. I was then convinced there had to be something that I could apply to my racing.
Running a quick Google search I found lots of material on recommended breathing techniques for athletes, but for the most part, they sighted reasons I hadn’t really considered. As an example, one article claimed that focus on breathing had shown up to a 10% improvement in performance in athletes, which is really impressive, but this was considered to be due to the improved state of mental focus. The ability to focus on breathing helps with relaxation, as well as bringing the mind to the present. A great example was how tennis players will always look at their racquets between play. This is because they’re trained to focus on the individual strings in an effort to quiet their mind after winning a big point, or losing one for that matter. Focusing on the small things, like the strings of your racquet, or on your controlled breathing can help strengthen focus on the task at hand. So, I’d found one pretty cool benefit to better breathing, but this wasn’t really what I was looking for. I wanted a magic bullet, something to directly increase endurance, power and SPEED! (add booming echo effect here)
THE MAGIC BULLET:
I have two words for you, ‘Diaphragmic Breathing’. Imagine what our habitual breathing is like after a lifetime of being told to suck in your gut, pull your shoulders back and push out your chest. I know when I paid attention to how I breathe naturally, I breathe into my chest, which is considered shallow breathing. This only uses the top 1/2 to 2/3 of our lung capacity. In order to get the air we take in down into the lower 1/3, we need to breathe using our belly. By breathing with our belly, we engage more of the diaphragm muscle and pull air down further into our lungs. What’s even cooler about this breathing technique is that although you’re only reaching an additional 1/3 of your lung capacity, 2/3 of your lungs’ access to your blood supply is located in that bottom 1/3. So, by breathing deeper, not only are you getting more oxygen into your lungs, you’re reaching the most efficient part of your lungs – now this sounded, at least in theory, like a ‘potential’ magic bullet!
Standing straight, hands relaxed at your sides, take a long deep breath and imagine filling your belly with air. When I tried this I could feel the difference – I could feel more air rushing in, and more oxygen. How do I really know this is the case? Well, I’m not basing it on scientific testing, but instead on the fact that as I completed a few of these longer, deep breaths, I could slow my breathing rate. Essentially, I just need to take less breaths due to the fact that I am getting more oxygen with each breath – simple enough, I think. (There are lots of exercises you can do to improve your breathing) So okay, that’s all fine and good. I know I can stand still and breathe deeply and in turn get more oxygen into my body, but can I do this on the bike?
On an outdoor ride this last weekend, I rode with a small group of three. The rider that set the pace was from ERTC and she was a pretty hardcore roadie vs. a mountain biker so when we weren’t in the single track she hammered the pace pretty good. I used this time to try out my new breathing technique. First off, it wasn’t easy. The bent over position you’re in while on the bike makes it hard, so you need to keep your head up and try to keep your back as straight as you can. When I tried this I felt my breathing was less restricted. So, while minding my body position, I took in nice long deep breaths into my belly, and tried to keep up a steady rhythm as well. (You can try to do this through your nose, but I found that too hard. Also, as an added benefit to being a mouth-breather, this has been shown to increase adrenalin, which in a race situation would be a good thing) The verdict – I’ll need to experiment further but, so far, awesome! I felt a lot stronger. My breathing was steadier, and less frantic, and this really just lead to an improved overall sense of being.
Now, I’ll just point out that I’m going at this from the position of someone who now knows my normal way of breathing is not great. I have found that I sometimes hold my breath on power climbs, and in general I breathe pretty shallow into my chest, so this new way of breathing, I hope, will be a great help to me, and maybe to some of you.
The hard part though will be to try and keep the deep breathing up through the faster, more intense single-track trails. I found that while we were in there, I couldn’t breathe as well – the continual change of body positions makes it tough. So, this will be something I’ll have to work on. I did find though, that anytime we hit a downhill section, this was a great chance for me to take in some really good deep breaths and I felt this by itself helped a lot.
Leg strength, is all fine and good, but if you can’t get enough oxygen to those big working muscles, they won’t be of much use for very long. No matter what your lung capacity is, you’ll want to make the most of it. Next time you’re out on the trails, pay attention to how you breathe normally. Are you a shallow (chest) breather? Do you find you hold your breath as you grunt out short sprints and power climbs? If so, then you might be able to make some solid improvements, which is always exciting because after all, more oxygen=more power=more speed!