Breathing Lessons for Indoor Cycling

The right and wrong ways to breathe to maximize performance


Recently, a woman came up to me after one of my indoor cycling classes and said, “I’ve noticed you don’t pant.” I wasn’t sure if she meant that I don’t get noticeably winded (at least not enough to interfere with my instructions) or that I don’t take short, shallow, noisy breaths the way some participants do. It turns out, she meant the former and asked how I’m able to cycle as hard as I do without becoming completely breathless.

It’s conditioning, I explained: Since I teach five to six cycle classes a week, I’m in good cardiovascular shape; plus, I know how to breathe correctly to enhance my fitness level and performance.

The reality is, she could just as easily have been asking about the panting patterns of some of her classmates. In every cycling class, there always seems to be at least one rider with a funky breathing habit: Whether it’s audibly huffing and puffing, panting with quick, shallow breaths, or holding their breath on a hill climb as they crank against the pedals, these riders aren’t doing themselves any favors. In fact, some of these shallow or infrequent breathing patterns can lead to hyperventilation, which can trigger dizziness, anxiety, palpitations, and other unpleasant symptoms.

Breathing is such an automatic body function that many of us don’t think about it—but we should. Being able to breathe properly during indoor cycling or any other workout helps you stay focused, energized, and strong.

It ensures that your blood, brain, nerves, and muscles receive a steady flow of oxygen. By contrast, even if you’re in great shape, breathing inefficiently can lead to muscle fatigue, general fatigue, and impaired performance; these effects, in turn, can make the effort feel more difficult and lead to decreased exercise tolerance—the opposite of what you want!

Surprisingly, women may have a slight advantage in the breathing department: In a 2010 study, researchers at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver had 38 endurance athletes cycle for 60 minutes at 90 percent of their peak work rate to the point of exhaustion while researchers monitored their diaphragmatic fatigue. It turned out the women’s diaphragms were more resistant to exercise-induced fatigue than the men’s were.

Nevertheless, both genders can maximize performance with proper breathing. In fact, having a variety of breathing techniques at your disposal can help you shine in athletic challenges, as well as professional and personal situations. The right breathing techniques can calm your mind and dial down the response of your sympathetic nervous system or rev up your energy and make you feel exhilarated when you need a boost. Here are four breathing techniques to help you get more out of your rides:

Diaphragmatic breathing: Breathing deeply from the diaphragm causes your belly to move outward, allowing your lungs to absorb more oxygen.

Besides increasing lung capacity, breathing from your diaphragm improves blood flow, lowers blood pressure, and induces feelings of calm. To do it right: Breathe in through your nose, letting your belly expand like a balloon and your diaphragm to rise toward your chest; slowly exhale fully, allowing your belly to deflate and flatten. Use this pattern when you’re warming up and cooling down and during active recovery.

Inhaling into your back: Half of your respiratory muscles reside in your back, and these muscles often tense up when you’re climbing a hill or riding hard. The idea with this breathing pattern is to inhale until you can feel the breath in the back of your rib cage then to exhale fully and allow the muscles in the back of your rib cage to relax again. Try this pattern when you’re pushing heavy resistance or climbing hills in a standing position.

Rhythmic breathing: To help your mind get in sync with your body, time your breathing pattern to coincide with your pedal strokes. While riding quickly on a flat road, you might start to inhale when your right foot is at the top of a pedal stroke; breathe in deeply over five pedal strokes, then exhale fully through five pedal strokes. On a hill, you might inhale and exhale every two pedal strokes.

Exhaling forcefully: When used in cycling, this pattern, which is similar to the Kapalabhati breath used in yoga, is a great way to become alert and energized. Inhale in a relaxed fashion, then exhale forcefully, using your diaphragm and abdominal muscles to expel the air. Do this 5 to 8 times then return to your normal breathing pattern. Besides using this technique in your warm-up, once you get good at it, you can use it on sprints and hills to rev up your pace and power.

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