Cyclists are always looking for an edge. But while many assume it involves the purchase of expensive lightweight equipment, what if we told you that by simply changing how you breathe, you could become up to 20% more oxygen efficient? Here’s how to ignite your internal biological combustion through nasal breathing.

Where carbon fibre frames and precision power meters represent much of the advancements in modern cycling, there’s some important ancient wisdom that the masses have forgotten. In our highly-stressed modern lives, a significant percentage of us have become mouth breathers; something science shows to be wrong.

WE’VE BEEN DOING IT WRONG

Many cyclists assume unhinging the jaw and gulping in oxygen leads to maximum uptake, but by evolutionary design, we humans are nose breathers. Deep nasal breathing leads to maximum oxygen uptake and the development of our respiratory muscles. Where mouth breathing signifies a state of panic, nasal breathing leads to inner calm and a relaxed state of balance and equilibrium within.

Breathing through the mouth is like eating through the nose. Common sense tells us it’s wrong.

SLOW DEEP BREATHING VS FAST SHALLOW BREATHING

Experts say that most people breathe at 10-20 per cent of their capacity. Poor breathing technique decreases respiratory function, and in turn, an inability to expel toxins from our bodies that can lead to further health issues.

For athletes like cyclists, respiratory efficiency is a crucial aspect of overall performance. Patrick McKeown, author of the book The Oxygen Advantage, claimed that by changing the respiratory rate from the average of 12 breaths per minute at rest, down to 6, we can increase alveoli ventilation in the lungs by 20%. In a world like cycling, where winning and losing is defined by fractions of a percent, these findings seem incredible.

When we breathe in, not all of the air we intake reaches the small air sacs at the bottom of our lungs. According to McKeown, shallow chest breathing through the mouth results in:

  • Reduced oxygen uptake in blood
  • Reduced oxygen delivery to the tissue
  • And trauma to the airways

Continuous nasal breathing improves our respiratory muscle strength, and breathing muscles are less likely to fatigue as our bodies learn to adapt to tolerate higher levels of CO2. Increased levels of CO2 actually help offload oxygen to the blood, and without it, it’s difficult for haemoglobin to release it to the muscles.

Nose breathing also results in a significantly lower heart rate during exercise. This means that blood stays longer in the lungs and in the muscles, giving it more time for these chemical transactions to take place.

A SELF-TEST FOR BREATHING EFFICIENCY

To test your respiratory efficiency, here’s a simple test you can do. Take a breath in through the nose and exhale entirely. Then time how long you can hold your breath before activation of the diaphragmatic reflex to breathe hits. If it’s less than 25 seconds—as it will be for most—then there’s a good chance that you have dysfunctional breathing patterns.

BREATHING AND THE NERVOUS SYSTEM

Our nervous systems consist of two branches, the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest). How we breathe controls which branch gets activated.

Dr John Douillard, an Ayurvedic practitioner and author of the book Body, Mind, and Sport, spurred something of a renaissance in nasal breathing among athletes. In his studies, he found that shallow mouth breathers are much more likely to activate the stress receptors that lie within the chest. Such activation provokes a sympathetic response that primes us for either fight or flight.

In addition, our rib cage has what’s called an elastic recoil that clamps down on the heart and lungs for 26,000 breaths per day. It gets progressively tighter with continual mouth breathing. According to Dr Douillard, this results in an inability to breathe deeply into our lower lobes, where incidentally, our repair, rejuvenating and calming receptors lie along with 60% of our blood.

THE BENEFITS OF NASAL BREATHING FOR CYCLISTS

According to the research carried out by Dr Douillard, nasal breathing has real benefits for cyclists. They apply much more to endurance riders than to those doing a VO2 max effort up a steep climb. On those long and consistent subthreshold efforts, it provides a way of teaching the body to sustain activity without exhibiting a stress response.

During the research, subjects rode a stationary bike and researchers directly compared the performance of athletes when mouth breathing and nose breathing. Researchers noted “significantly improved” endurance levels in nasal breathers compared to mouth breathers. Some of the associated benefits include:

  • Maximum assimilation. Nasal breathing aligns the temperature and humidity of the air you breathe to levels your lungs can better assimilate.
  • Breathing rate. In the study, during a 200-watt effort, nasal breath rates were significantly lower than the rates among mouth breathers. Nasal breathers recorded a breath rate of 14 breaths per minute, while for mouth breathers, rates averaged 48 breaths per minute. At rest, we average 16 – 18 breath per minute.
  • Nervous system response to nasal breathing. Under normal circumstances, exercise induces a rise in sympathetic activity, which corresponds to a stress response within the body. But by taking HRV (Heart Rate Variability) measurements, researchers noticed a substantial increase in parasympathetic activity in nasal breathers.
  • The zen of “The Zone”. For many cyclists, there’s no greater feeling than entering a flow state. It’s one where time stands still, and we morph into a state of oneness of complete immersion. Alpha brain waves are associated with the deeply relaxed and meditative state required to enter such a state. During nasal breathing trials, cyclists were much more likely to exhibit bursts of alpha activity associated with flow state.
  • Brain waves during exercise. Studies suggest that during periods of stress and exertion, our brains become less coherent, but what this research showed was that brain waves become more coherent under nasal breathing. While this esoteric concept may be difficult to grasp, it’s a critical piece of the puzzle for those who want to enter a flow state. When more parts of our brain are doing the same thing, as opposed to being scattered, we slip into that sought after zone of oneness more easily.

IS IT EVER OK TO BREATH THROUGH YOUR MOUTH?

If you’re cycling around Watopia on Zwift, then there’s no avoiding some of those killer hills. When entering anaerobic levels of intensity, it’s impossible not to unhinge the intake vent that is the mouth and gulp in oxygen. The secret to improved respiratory efficiency isn’t solely nasal breathing; it’s in reverting to it as the default breathing method in a sub-anaerobic zone.

HOW TO GET STARTED? SMART TRAINER BREATHING ROUTINES

So you’re convinced by the science? Jump on your bike now and give it a try, you’ll give up within 15 minutes, because your lungs are underdeveloped. They’re not used to breathing in the correct way and you won’t be able to sustain the same level of performance. The best time to do it when you’re coming back from a long period off the bike. Because those old habits are hard to break.

For those who want to work on undoing old ingrained habits, the smart trainer is a truly remarkable platform. It allows us to experiment with things like position and pedal stroke. We’re used to doing drills that focus on one leg for example. And just because you can’t see your lungs, doesn’t mean that you can’t isolate them and work on them during specific sessions.

To help perfect breathing, here’s an exercise you can practice on the smart trainer. Syncing your breath to your pedal stroke is like putting your body on autopilot. Depending on your cadence, inhale and exhale during a specified number of revolutions – then gradually extend. The harmonious nature of combining both means much less distraction than doing each individually.

You can also do incremental intervals. Start spinning very slowly for 15 minutes while you concentrate on breathing as slowly and deeply as possible. Then gradually speed up. When you reach that subtle point where your breath loses its deep rhythm, slow down to your original warm up speed. Once you get back into the right rhythm, then slowly increase again. Keep repeating and gradually you’ll find you can get incrementally faster each time. There are many more exercises in Body, Mind, and Sport for you to try.

THE CHEAPEST MARGINAL GAIN

Marginal gains are where it’s at in modern cycling. But while most don’t come cheap, breathing is free. And while it may seem simple (and it is), it will take practice to master. Many people take at least three weeks of consistent practice to break through and leave old habits behind. But once they do, it’s such a beautiful feeling that they never go back.