A Breathing Story - One Cyclist's Journey to Breathing Better
For most cyclists breathing is a natural thing. No thinking involved. Just breathe. But for me, breathing is not a subconscious thing. I have to think about it. I somehow got out of sync years ago and then had to relearn how to breathe correctly. The techniques I have learned may help others with breathing dysfunction, and also may benefit those who do not have a clinical dysfunction, but who are looking to maximize their breathing, especially at high intensity.
Disclaimer: I’m not a physician and this article is for informational purposes only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultations with healthcare professionals. Utilize this information at your own risk.
I used to breathe correctly, I am assuming. I ran track and Cross country in middle school and high school with regional success. I switched to cycling in college and went on to race professionally on the Pro Tour (today’s World Tour) with… ok, not so much success, but I did make it to that level before the EPO era bounced me out (i did not go down that path - another story…). Anyway, at one point in my life I could breathe just fine.
It all went south towards the end of my professional cycling career. I recall it vividly. I was in a race and began to gasp for air while chasing down a break at a hard pace. Instead of finding a controlled respiration as I ramped up the power like I usually would, I found myself gasping for air, similar to hyperventilating. My team car came up to me and told me to ride faster, but as his last word came out he could see the distress I was in and called for another teammate to take up the chase. I dropped out shortly thereafter.
I had this hyperventilation event happen several times that year. At the time, I concluded that the issue stemmed from poor fitness (even though I was super fit) and asthma (which I was diagnosed with during that same time period). I ended up returning to the US and racing another mediocre year while having the same hyperventilation episodes. At the end of that year, I stopped racing and moved on to the next chapter in my life - a chapter that didn’t involve breathing hard - without figuring out the source of my breathing dysfunction.
It wasn’t until several years later that I started to run and mountain bike with some work colleagues that I found that my little breathing issue was still there. A simple three mile run at casual pace sent my respiratory rate through the roof. What the hell was going on, I would say to myself. I’m a former pro cyclist and I can’t even keep up with… anyone. I would be going up a slight incline and I’d be gasping for air like I had just sprinted for 100 meters. I found no solutions over the next several years and basically just kept my running and cycling outings to a pace that was significantly under AT at all times.
I moved to Boulder, CO in the mid 2000s. I was now in the bike industry and began to ride a bit more. I was still experiencing dysfunction and was not able to roll with anyone at the pointy end of any peloton. I wasn’t even really able to ride in the middle of that pack either. I was… back of the pack fodder. This was a big blow to my ego and self worth, but that’s another story. The point is, I had a breathing issue and I could not figure out the root cause. Since I was in the bike business I decided to get professional help.
Doctors checked my asthma. Yes, you have asthma. Take these meds. You should be able to breathe nearly fine. I couldn’t. I was tested for Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), Vocal cord dysfunction, and a lot of other physical maladies that might cause my issue. Nothing. And so, I gave up. I continued to ride, but not to the level that I thought I should be at. C’est la Vie, I thought.
A few years later, which is about two year ago (late 2020), I began another web search to try and see if I could find something out about my breathing dysfunction. I didn’t find anything specific to my symptoms, but I did come across some breathing hacks, ways to breathe that were supposed to help you learn to breathe “correctly”. I began to experiment with some of the hacks. These hacks are similar to breathing techniques that people use to calm themselves down in times of stress. You’ve probably heard of the “smell the roses, blow out the candle” technique. There’s also Box breathing (breathe in for a couple seconds, hold for a couple, breathe out for a couple, hold for a couple, a box…); pursed lip breathing (as it says, purse your lips while breathing out; ffff breathing (make an fff sound when breathing out); etc. Although some gave some relief, none solved the problem. I experimented breathing with my jaw jutted. I did the breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth stuff as well. No magic bullets.
But all these hacks helped me focus on what was working and what wasn’t. The breakthroughs came in small realizations. First, I realized my “belly” was going in the opposite direction when I was breathing. This is called Paradoxical Breathing. It occurs when your diaphragm moves in the opposite direction than it should when you're inhaling and exhaling. Typically, when you breathe, your diaphragm (a muscle between the lungs and heart) pushes up or down to help control your airflow. Mine was doing the opposite. It took a long time to figure out, but I realized that instead of making an inhalation that pushed my diaphragm down, I was sucking air in with my mouth and neck and in so doing, I was effectively chest breathing. And as it turns out, chest breathing is not good. It is what gets you to a hyperventilation state. You breathe ineffectively by sucking in air through your mouth and throat. Since you don’t get enough oxygen, your brain continues to ask for more air and you suck in more. And then you hyperventilate…
Over the months, I focused on some of the hacks that yielded some small gains. I broke down what worked in what phase of the breathing mechanics. I found that a lot of the breathing hacks aimed to do two things: relax you and put your diaphragm in the correct position at the appropriate part of the breathing mechanics. By mechanics, I mean, inhalation, exhalation, and the connection between the two.
It took me about three years but I have come to what I believe is my solution. That said, had you told me this solution a few years ago, it would not have worked. I had to go through all the little details of the entire mechanics to get to my solution. First, I focused on relaxing my face, throat, larynx, and everything neck and above. This sounds easy, but it took a while to stay relaxed. I would tell myself to relax and then five pedal strokes later I’d find myself not relaxed.
Relaxing my larynx was not the full solution, though. I learned, too, that I needed to relax my abdomen and my belly. I think of it like this: the part of my body above my diaphragm and the part of my body below the diaphragm need to be relaxed. Easily said, but for me it was not easy to do. It took another year to figure this part out.
Although the solution is to relax I still needed to and still do today, focus on the mechanics of breathing to make it all work. I believe this is because when I start to feel that I’m getting out of sync, I need to be able to go to some part of the mechanics to get back in sync. Telling myself to relax doesn’t work.
Thus, I will attempt to break down the mechanics. There is an overall relaxation needed and there are two phases. Inhalation and exhalation. By the way, there are several yoga breathing techniques and a lot else written on the subject of optimal breathing throughout the eons, but in my experience those work on the yoga mat but not when the body is nearing max power. What I have found is that I don’t need to so much breathe a certain way as I just need to breathe functionally (as in, not dysfunctionally). The body then takes over and does what is needed.
- Relax your face, your mouth, your throat, your neck. These muscles are not involved in the breathing mechanics. They are just the portal for the air.
- Relax your stomach and chest. Neither of these are involved in the breathing mechanics either. Your belly will move outward and inward when the diaphragm pushes it, but neither the belly nor the lower abs are used to breathe (the lower abs help stabilize it all, but they are not used to breathe).
- Focus on your diaphragm. It, and the abs around it, are what do the breathing. Importantly, you move it down (to breathe in) and up (to breathe out). We do not breathe in and out. We breathe down and up. This is important. The result is that the stomach/belly move out and in. But the mechanism is down and up.
- Relax the belly and push down and back with the diaphragm. The diaphragm, or the touch point, the place where you can control it is between the upper chest and the belly. If you don’t have a relaxed belly, your diaphragm will have to fight it in order to push down. This was an amazing realization. A big breakthrough for me came when I realized that breathing in and out is not exactly the best way to describe the mechanics. It wasn’t until I used the terms down and up that I got it. When you “breathe in” you actually push your diaphragm down. And when you breathe out, the diaphragm is actually moving up. Very key. When I feel like I’m getting out of sync, I focus on this aspect. Somethimes I even think to myself to push the diaphgram down AND back. This really helps me not push it outward.
- This was and still is the most difficult part for me. Pushing down with my diaphragm is easy. Pushing or pulling it back is not. I tend to incorporate my face and neck into this phase, which as I’ve said already is not good. I find the hack for me is to keep the belly super relaxed, like I have a huge beer belly (I don’t) and I want to keep it on the floor while letting my diaphragm return upward. The key for me is to relax my entiure being like I’m sighing. As I relax and sigh, my diaphragm moves up. I’m not sure why this works.
CONNECTING THE EXHALATION AND THE INHALATION
- This is the part that is most difficult to describe. I will try. As I inhale and push the diaphragm downward, I keep the pressure that I feel in my diaphragm on. I could just relax all together, but I need to keep that pressure on as I exhale and move the diaphragm back up. If I don’t, I lose it all and get out of sync. I keep this “tension/pressure on” throughout the inhalation and exhalation cycle. I believe what is going on is that this pressure is actually just me simply using my diaphragm, which is what is supposed to happen. Once I lose this pressure, I believe, my body is trying to recruit other areas to the breathing process - as in, my throat, larynx, chest, and lower abs.
To conclude, it comes down to relaxing and using only your diaphragm to breathe. This is why pro bike riders look so relaxed on those Tour de France mountain finishes. The optimum state is to be relaxed. It’s not until they’ve (or I have; or you have) gone anaerobic and have gone above the redline for over 12-20 seconds does one’s respiratory system go to the point that it needs to breathe in and out vigorously.
I put this out there in case there are others who have breathing problems who are on their own journey to breathe correctly. May my solutions be part of your solution! I also believe that this can be a small help to people who do not have a breathing issue per se, but are looking to improve their breathing at or near their max.
Thanks for reading, if you made it this far:)