For endurance, aerobic exercise your muscles need oxygen to burn fuel, and deep breathing is the most efficient way to get it. Quick, shallow breathing delivers less oxygen per breath, and expels less carbon dioxide. Breathing more deeply and slowly will use more lung capacity, improve gaseous exchange and reduce the oxygen cost of each breath as you use your breathing muscles less.
A good technique for slow, deep breathing is nasal breathing, which restricts the flow of air out of the body, allowing better oxygen absorption. An added advantage is that by forcing inhaled air through your nasal and sinus passages, it filters out bacteria. It also warms the air, reducing throat and chest soreness from cold air breathed in directly though the mouth.
The key to slower deeper breathing is using your larger diaphragm muscles rather than your smaller chest muscles, which tire more quickly. Learning to contract your diaphragm fully is the most efficient way to maximise your lung volume with each breath. Practise it on and off the bike by keeping your chest and shoulders still while concentrating on raising your belly as you inhale, and lowering it as you exhale.
Breathing rhythmically in time with your pedal strokes helps to maintain an efficient cadence and breathing rhythm. A good starting point for steady pace riding is to breathe in for two pedal strokes, hold your breath for two, then breathe out for four. As you improve, try more pedal strokes in each phase. For example, four, four, eight instead of two, two, four. Don’t forget to belly breathe.
Graeme Obree’s rhythmic breathing technique emphasises breathing out. It uses three-phases: one long, deep breath out and in, then two shorter, half-breaths out and in. The principle is to expel as much ‘used air’ as possible, before filling your lungs with oxygen-rich air, which then stays in your lungs for longer during the two half breaths, before repeating the cycle.
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