BREATHING: At The Center Of Your Best Rides

TOOLBOX: When it comes to breathing many cyclists think “Hey, if I’m not dead, I’m certainly doing it right!” Unfortunately this is not the case, and our poor breathing can keep us from unlocking our full potential and speed, as well as unnecessarily prolonging our recovery.

We all have to breathe

What happens when you breathe well?
For a cyclist who is riding many hours in a forward, often crunched position, this position, and the time spent in it, can have huge negative effects on the ability of the athlete to breathe, as well as limit the shoulders ability to move. This affects our bike handling, makes us less efficient, and subtly change our off-bike posture, which affect our daily lives. But learning how to breathe properly can give you a huge boost in your power and recovery.

When we get a good, full breath, the upper rib cage will expand the ribs up and forward, allowing us to open the ribs and fill more of our lungs. This happens from movement of the chest up and out, and the ribs on our sides moving at their joints at the upper back along the spine.

Yes, the ribs have joints at your spine that should move. If these joints don’t move, over time you will find yourself suffering from side stitches and a sore neck on even your most basic rides as other muscles, called accessory muscles, work to try to help you breathe.

At the lower back, when we inhale air with a good breath, we are able to produce pressure in our stomach which allows the hips and pelvic floor muscle to move together to give our core better stabilization, which helps us to produce more power to the pedals.

Good Breathing vs. Bad Breathing
Good breathing allows the pelvis to move slightly backwards when we inhale, which is important for our pedaling motion on the bike, as our hip socket is more open and able to move. Then, when we breathe out, the pelvis will move slightly forward, which can decrease the range of motion at the hip joint, and thus sap our pedaling power.

Every good breath we take requires the muscles of the pelvic floor to work together and in chorus with our diaphragm to contract and relax, allowing our joints to move through contraction and expansion, which impacts how and what each of our muscles will do when asked to work.

Breathing also has a direct interaction with our nervous system and our heart function. When we inhale, heart rate increases and heart rate variability decreases. At the same time, there is an increase in sympathetic nervous system activation (fight or flight). The opposite happens when we exhale.

With poor breathing patterns, where we are not expanding the rib cage and moving the hips through this natural forward and backwards movements, over time can lead to our hips losing the ability to move or leg and foot in and out. This loss of internal and external rotation at the hip, can lead to lower back problems, which has been shown in a number of research studies to be a big contributor to lower back pain and problems.

If we have poor breathing patterns, our body’s ability to control inflammation is decreased. Poor breathing patterns creates ischemia (poor blood flow to an area), which can enhance pain. If we’re not careful, we can even get stuck in an “exhalation state,” which can increase our reliance on the glycolytic energy system, affecting our ability to perform.

How does respiration and breathing affect our recovery?
Recovery of the nervous system is an incredibly overlooked area in our recovery from ride to ride, and how soon we can get back on the bike, and “go again” at the same intensities. One of the key tenets of performance is the ability to kick start the recovery process quickly after efforts, and after rides. Improper breathing, however, can impair this process and keep us in a stressed state.

When we are in this stressed state with the “fight or flight” mode running the show, many of the processes in the body are compromised, as our body is so focused on the “fight or flight”, everything else is shut down.

This means that:
1. We cannot digest foods properly to restore energy balance and bring nutrients into the body to help repair damage done through our life stress and workouts.

2. Blood pressure may remain high – over time this leads to break down blood vessels (example of such are diabetics who leave their high blood pressure go untreated).

3. Body temperature may also stay high, affecting our bodies ability to regulate temperature, thus affecting numerous metabolic processes in the body.

4. Our muscles may stay in a tense state, leaving them at lengths that are not ideal for performance, and which can hinder recovery and muscle building.

5. Our immune system remains in an alert state, which limits the body’s ability to repair soft tissues, which over time can lead to poor tissue qualities, health issues, and even injury.

These changes, and more, when we are in the midst of our workouts or races, are necessary adaptations, as they allow us to perform. However if we remain in this “alert” state after our training sessions, it will have an immensely negative impact on our performance, and building of fitness.

What is 360 degree breathing, and why does it matter?
The entire body responds to the changes in internal pressure that occur when we have proper 360 degree breathing patterns. This concept of 360 degree breathing is absolutely integral in understanding how to breathe improperly, and how we must get movement in all 3 plains of movement (forward and backwards, side to side, and up and down), in order to allow the body to function best.

360 degree breathing entails:
1. The upper rib cage should move up and out, like an old water pump, which affects shoulder position and shoulder movement.

2. The lower rib cage needs to be able to move out and away from our spine as we inhale, like the handle on a paint can, which will have an impact on how we are able to inhale and exhale, thus have a big impact on how much airflow we can get in. If you’re not getting in all the air you can, then you’re just cheating yourself of oxygen!

3. The pelvis should move forward (called nutation) and back (called counternutation), and affect the position of the hip socket, and can greatly affect hip movement.

Getting Started with Better Breathing
To help you learn how to breathe properly and to get you into better positions for recovery and stress management, we’re going to use an exercise called “crocodile breathing” (video above). If you listened to episode 69 of Fast Talk on VeloNews, where Chris and Trevor interviewed me, you’ll recall that Trevor wound up getting down on the floor to do this exercise, while Chris gave me a play-by-play on how he was moving.

While it may have seemed like fun and games, this is actually a really great way to help make you aware of what your good and poor breathing habits are. We’re able to see the expansion of the upper torso in between the shoulder blades, the rolling backwards of the pelvis in inhalation, and rolling forward in the exhale.

But in Trevor’s case, much like many of us who ride a lot, his pelvis was stuck, and he was not able to “turn off” that sympathetic response when he breathed in. This, as we mentioned above, oftentimes is a big red flag which is indicative of a cascade of negative “stress retaining” systemic changes in the body that have been triggered, all because of poor breathing patterns.

Give Crocodile Breathing a try before and after your rides, and practice getting good and full 360 degree breaths. While it may take a few weeks to see significant changes, many of the athletes I prescribe these to often report “feeling different” (in a good way) within 5-10 days of incorporating these.

If you find crocodile breathing to be easy, and you can execute it properly, try Hands Overhead Breathing (video above). By bringing the hands overhead and needing to keep the ribs down, this add a whole new layer of difficulty and challenge. If you have shoulder pain, or have lost some of your shoulder function, give a read to my piece How an Endurance Athlete Can Appease a Shoulder That Hates Them, from Tony Gentilcore’s website.

Until next time, remember to Train Smarter, Not Harder, because it’s all about YOU!

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Menachem Brodie is a USA Cycling Expert Level coach, SICI certified bike fitter, and NSCA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist. For the last 10 years he has been working with athletes from around the world to get fitter, faster, and stronger through strength training and in-sport training plans. He has presented on Strength Training for Cyclists & Triathletes internationally, and is the author of 2 authoritative online courses:
Strength Training for Cycling Success
Strength Training for Triathlon Success
Both available on TrainingPeaks University
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