Sign up for our newsletter


How to breathe better on a bike

Cyclist magazine
26 May 2020

Getting air in and out of your body is a mindless task. But are there gains to be made with a bit more application?

Oxygen is a key commodity in cycling. Pedalling increases your metabolic rate and that requires a naturally occurring energy source called ATP to fuel it. As ATP in turn requires oxygen to work, it figures that the harder you pedal, the more oxygen you need. Which is why you end up gasping for air. So what can you do to deliver oxygen to your muscles more efficiently?

Your lungs: The facts 

Well, first the bad news. You can’t grow bigger lungs – no matter how hard you train. And your lungs’ capacity is also dependent on your height and gender.

Taller people tend to have larger lungs than tiddlers, while men’s lungs are bigger than women’s. Lung capacity also decreases with age, so a cyclist in his 80s has only around half the lung capacity of one in his 20s.

Whatever age you are, however, chances are you’ll only be using a fraction of your lungs’ capacity. Which is good news because it means if you use them better you’ll perform better. Before we get onto how, though, let’s have a quick look at how your lungs work: 

  • On inhalation your diaphragm contracts, opening the lungs up. Your intercostal (rib) muscles also help your chest expand, causing air pressure within the lungs to drop and more air to be drawn in.
  • On exhalation your diaphragm and your intercostals relax and the lungs deflate. This process is also helped by your abs when you’re breathing hard.

Breathe deeply

The key to good breathing on the bike is to ensure you’re using your lungs to their maximum potential. To do this, don’t sip the air, breathe it deeply.

This way you’ll use more of your lung capacity and start optimising your body’s ability to process oxygen. Like everyone, you’ll have a peak aerobic fitness that’s unique to you and when you reach it, you’ll have achieved what’s called your VO2Max. This is the maximum volume of oxygen your body can use in a minute.

Measured in millilitres per kilo of bodyweight, it varies from person to person. Levels for most sofa surfers hover around 35, while dedicated cyclists can peak at around 60.

By contrast elite athletes reach greater heights – for example last year’s Tour de France winner Chris Froome’s was measured at a rather bonkers 84.6. 

VO2 max threshold

Check your bike position

As we’ve seen, the diaphragm plays a starring role when it comes to breathing properly on a bike, so try to maximise its movement.

This can be tricky, particularly if you’re hunched over the bars. If time trials are your thing, then you’ll need to find a balance between being aero and getting enough oxygen around your body because going low on the bike robs your diaphragm of space to move.

So experiment with different positions over a set course and see what works best for you. Bike position is, of course, less of a problem for sportive riders who tend to adopt a more upright posture on the bike.

Breathe from your stomach

To really get the most from your diaphragm, focus on breathing from your stomach, not your lungs. To get this right, put your hand on the upper part of your stomach and feel if it bulges out as you breathe in. When you feel this and see your chest rise, you’ll know you’ve nailed it. 

Try zooming

This technique was first pioneered by US cycling guru Ian Jackson and when Alexi Grewal became the first American to win gold in the road race at the 1984 Olympics, he attributed his success to it.

It works by emphasising the out-breath, or as Jackson once explained, ‘Instead of just sucking in air and letting it out, try pushing the air out then letting it back in.’

A later study by the University of Toledo put Jackson’s technique to the test and concluded that riders who used it improved aerobic capacity by 17%.

Breathe in through the mouth, out through the nose

Research suggests that inhaling through your mouth delivers more oxygen, while exhaling through your the narrower space of your nostrils is slower and so gives your lungs more time to suck as much oxygen out of each breath as possible.

In reality, the edge you gain is probably just nanoseconds – but, hey, better a nanosecond gained than one lost!

Read more about: