Breathing Techniques for Mountain Bikers
It’s something that we all do, but can it be done better? Steve Hinchliffe looks at some alternative breathing techniques that may help you extract more ‘go’ from what you’ve got.
As cyclists, most of us would like to get fitter so that we can ride faster for longer and in greater comfort. There are numerous aspects to fitness but one of the most important is aerobic performance; our body’s ability to extract oxygen from the atmosphere and get it to our often screaming muscles. A rider with good aerobic performance will be able to operate at a high level of physical output whilst maintaining a relatively moderate metabolic rate (i.e. breathing and heart rate), whilst someone with very poor aerobic performance may have an elevated metabolic rate even at quite modest output levels.
Traditionally, cyclists and other sportspeople have improved their aerobic fitness through prolonged periods of high activity whilst trying to maintain a moderate metabolic rate, but in many Eastern traditions fitness is achieved by working at a moderate level and trying to maintain a slow metabolic rate.
These alternative ‘breath training’ methods make use of our body’s hardwired neural connections and physiological processes to allow you to function in a more efficient manner. Best of all, you don’t need leave the house or get out of your jim-jams to learn them—bonus! Combine this with your regular training regime and you’ll be scampering up climbs like Nino Schurter, smiling all the way!
Before going any further, it’s vitally important to understand that the result of these breath exercises is ultimately to breathe less than you normally would, not more. Additionally, when working with breath control you’re also affecting your nervous system, and if at any point you feel dizzy, get a headache, start to feel stressed, or your breathing becomes forced, you need to stop what you’re doing and return to normal breathing, at least for a few minutes. These simple (but not necessarily easy) breathing techniques outlined below are just the first steps to learning how to use your breath to control your body in ways you’ve probably never imagined possible (the photo above shows a more complex technique, for example). I hope you try them and start to reap the rewards of conscious breathing.
Instant Improvement – The 2:3-1:2 Rhythm
What it is - This breath technique is used in a variety of oriental martial arts (Ninjutsu, for example). You can start to apply it from the moment you finish reading this article, and you’ll notice instant and significant improvements to your performance and recovery rate. It’s pretty simple; breathe in for a count of two, out for three, then in for one and out for two (hence 2:3-1:2), and repeat ad infinitum. Count as slowly as you can without feeling anxious or stressed; when you’re scaling a steep climb the count will be quite short, and when you’re cruising a flat fire road it’ll be much slower, but keep the ratios of your breath the same in order to get the most from this technique.
Why it works - Inhaling stimulates your sympathetic nervous system (your fight/flight response), whilst exhaling stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest-and-digest response, as well as glycogen production). By keeping your exhalations longer than your inhalations, the net result is activation of the parasympathetic nervous system which induces a reduced metabolic rate and shorter recovery time when resting. Breathing this way also makes use of a phenomenon called the Bohr Effect, which allows oxygen to be released from your blood into other tissues much more easily, and hence provides a significant boost to your available energy.
Medium Term – Ujjayi (Ocean) Breath
What it is - This one comes from the Yoga and Taoist traditions, and is a bit trickier to master than the 2:3-1:2 rhythm; you’ll need a few weeks or months to become really comfortable with it. The aim is to breathe only through your nose, but instead of concentrating your inhalation at the nostrils like normal, you want to maintain a sense that you’re breathing from your throat. When done correctly, your breath will make a gentle rasping or hissing sound in the throat which sounds a bit like a distant ocean, or the wind through the trees, or (somewhat less poetically) like Darth Vader. In addition your nostrils won’t constrict even when taking quite deep, strong breaths.
It’s important to practice this one from a comfortable sitting position (or even lying down on your back) until you become familiar with it. Probably the best way to get the hang of Ujjayi (which, incidentally for you racers, means ‘victorious’ in Sanskrit) is to begin inhaling through your mouth, and then halfway through the breath close your mouth but keep breathing in. You’ll know when you’ve got it, because the sound is unmistakable. It’s quite normal when you start working with this technique to feel a little like you’re choking, or to get a bit anxious; when this happens, just take a break for 1-2 minutes and start up again when you’re ready. Once you’ve got it sorted, try to breathe like this as much as possible (ultimately every in and out breath of every day can be done in this way).
Why it works - Compared to mouth breathing, you’ll be getting less air to your lungs per minute, which might sound like a bad idea given what we’re trying to achieve, but in actual fact this is the same as altitude training, (the higher the altitude, the lower the oxygen content in air) but without having to go on a trip to the mountains. You’ll have slightly more CO2 in your bloodstream, which acts as a vasodilator to open up the alveoli in your lungs and increase gas exchange into your bloodstream. By restricting the amount of oxygen to the lungs your body starts to adapt and use the available oxygen more efficiently, turning your clunky V8 Falcon lungs into a turbo charged Impreza WRX. When you’re on your bike and need to sprint for the finish line or punch up a steep pinch, simply open your mouth to breath and suddenly you’ve got masses of oxygen going straight into your muscles right when you need it—beautiful!
Long Term – Three Phase Breathing (Viloma)
What it is - This is another technique from the Yoga tradition, designed to increase your effective lung capacity. It involves taking slow, deep inhalations in three distinct stages, firstly to the lowest part of the lungs, then to the middle of the lungs, and finally to the upper lobes of the lungs; this is followed by a long, smooth exhalation. The first stage involves dropping the diaphragm down and allowing your stomach to puff out, the second stage should see your side ribs expand outwards, whilst the third stage involves lifting your collarbones and upper back and taking the breath up towards your throat; there is a short pause between each stage. A comfortable rhythm for beginners might be inhale for three seconds per phase, pause for one second between each phase, and then exhale for 10 seconds; this results in around three breaths per minute. Over time, you should be able to gradually extend the rhythm to 5-2-5-2-5-2-15, or something along those lines. Practice this from a comfortable sitting position, keep the in and out breaths completely calm and smooth, and if at any stage you feel anxious or your breath starts to get shaky, stop the rhythm and rest for a few minutes.
Why it works - Your lungs don’t expand because air is forced into them, but rather air is forced into them because they expand. The lungs expand due to muscular contraction of the diaphragm (downwards) and the intercostals muscles (outwards and upwards), but unfortunately most of us have very poor control of these muscles, and can only contract some of them, and only some of the way. This means that for many of us we only use a small, central portion of our potential total lung capacity. By slowly learning to both use more of these breathing muscles, and using them more fully, you can increase the total amount of air (and hence oxygen) you can inhale in one breath, which means for any given breath rate you’ll be getting more oxygen to your muscles without needing to do anything other than breath!
Don’t Just Sit There, Breathe!
You can use each of these breathing techniques in isolation, but of course the most powerful benefits will come when, after a period of time, you can combine all three; breathing deeply into the extremities of your lungs using Ujjayi nasal breath in a 2:3-1:2 rhythm. This isn’t going to happen quickly, and it’s vitally important that you don’t stress your lungs or nervous system by ‘pushing’ your breath training, but with patience you’ll notice improvements not only to your riding, but also a general reduction in your metabolic rate during day to day activities. You’ll recover faster after exercise, sleep better, and be calmer and less stressed, which surely can’t be a bad thing. When all else fails, just breathe!