Thursday, 15 August 2013

Breathing properly

I wonder how many people are like me in having poor breathing habits while riding.  I’m sure that this is widespread amongst amateur cyclists, with consequent effects on performance.  Unfortunately, as with all habits, it's difficult to break.

My poor breathing is (was?) characterized by four things, all of which are inter-related and come under the wider heading of chronic hyper-ventilation.  They are:

  • Breathing through the mouth rather than the nose
  • Breathing with the upper chest rather than the diaphragm
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Over-breathing; i.e. taking in too much air.
This doesn't occur all the time, but it especially shows itself towards the end of a tough ride.

You might have experienced, seen, or heard of acute hyper-ventilation, which involves a person desperately gasping for air, but to no avail despite the vast quantities they suck in. Tests show that it is not insufficient oxygen that is their problem, but not enough carbon dioxide.  Their oxygen levels are actually similar to anyone else’s.  However, as they continue to hyper-ventilate (over-breath), more and more carbon dioxide is lost from their system.  Unfortunately for them, they are losing the very thing that is needed to transfer the oxygen to the cells needing it.  The treatment?  Reducing the rate of breathing!

Chronic hyper-ventilation is more long-term and not as intense, but has similar causes, treatment, and symptoms.

So, why is this important to us cyclists?  Basically, because the symptoms have a direct impact on performance!  Here are the symptoms that concern me:

  • Breathlessness, which makes it impossible to continue to push yourself
  • Wanting to breath more and more, which only makes things worse
  • Rapid, shallow breathing through the upper torso, which uses your muscles inefficiently and tires you faster
  • Mild chest pain, which can be confused for other more serious issues
  • Stress, anxiety and panic, which only make the symptoms worse
  • Also, I’m sure that it affects you off the bike too, hampering your recovery and affecting your general health and well-being.

Let me give you three examples of my own experience.  These might sound familiar to some of you.

  • As indicated above, racing up a hill and just running out of breath.  This puzzled me at the time. Although I was really pushing myself, I knew that I had the strength to continue hard, it’s just that all the air I was sucking in didn’t seem to be doing what it should.  I was forced to slow down.
  • In really long races, the hyper-ventilation especially hits me when I stop.  For some reason, all the physical and emotional stress overwhelms me as soon as I stop pedalling.  I noticed this in the last 150 km of the 505km Graperide, and I had quite a frightening acute attack when sitting for a breather half way through the 4 laps of Taupo.  The latter actually contributed to me pulling out.
  • In the same 4-lapper, I experienced tightness in the chest after the 250 km mark.  I had never experienced this before and it scared me.  Indeed, it was the main reason I pulled out of that race, as I feared I was going to have a heart attack.

Realizing what all these experiences have in common has been a great relief for me, as it means that they can be addressed and needn’t happen again.  And the solution?  Well that’s obvious – just don’t hyper-ventilate!

Of course, “Don’t!” is easier said than done.  Here are some of the steps I now take to address chronic hyper-ventilation.

  • Breathe through the nose when cycling, even when going up a hill.  Of course, this isn’t always possible when going really hard out.  But, even then, at least try to breathe out through the nose, as this will reduce the amount of carbon dioxide you lose.
  • Practice diaphragm breathing.  This has been a really hard one for me.  However, when I’ve been able to do it on the bike, I’ve found myself become markedly calmer, with my riding becoming more relaxed and efficient, my heart rate dropping, and my breathing becoming more measured.
  • Reduce the rate of breathing.  Breathe in a measured way.  Definitely don’t pant, even when you’re working hard.
  • Reduce the amount of breathing.  This is definitely a hard one, but I need to re-programme myself to breathe less.  Interestingly, when I do succeed, I find that my body can easily cope with the reduced air intake.  I also feel considerably better, but it does take a lot of effort.  If you’re interested in the concept of reduced breathing, Google the term “Buteyko breathing”.

I now make proper breathing an important focus of my training rides.  Indeed, in this case, the breathing also becomes part of my training off the bike.  Whenever I can, I try to become aware of it and take steps to make sure that it is nice and easy, slow and relaxed, and definitely done mainly with the diaphragm.

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