To most athletes, learning to breathe sounds like a waste of time. But what if training the breathing muscles could improve your performance? Studies featuring cyclists, rowers and runners show that small but significant improvements are possible. Let’s check out three exercises that will help you get there.

It’s all about belly breathing

The secret weapon in breathing efficiency is belly breathing, the ability to recruit your diaphragm to push as much air in and out of your lungs as possible. A lot of time spent sitting hunched in front of a TV or computer can make your diaphragm weaker and promotes shallow chest breathing. That’s why you will have to practice sending your breath to your belly to expand the abdomen and exercise the diaphragm muscle.

#1 Three in, three out

You should do this basic exercise off the bike, to get used to how proper belly breathing feels before you try it while riding. Research shows that if you’re able to get your breathing down to about 10 breaths a minute, you will notice the benefits. Doing this exercise for a couple of minutes every day will help you get there. You can practice anywhere, at home, on the bus, or at work.

• The goal is to exhale for three seconds and then inhale for three seconds.
• Lay your hands on your sternum, the top of your abdomen, to feel your stomach as you try to push it out with each inhale, and suck it in with each exhale.

#2 Pedal stroke breath counting

Being able to control your breathing on the bike, especially in rough terrain or while climbing, can be challenging. Counting your breaths to the rhythm of your pedal strokes can help bring your focus back to breathing. It’s best to try it first on a home trainer or a flat familiar course. Settle into a cadence of 90-95 rpms in a moderate gear and breathe like this:

• Inhale for 3 down-strokes, letting the air in naturally without force.
• Exhale for 6 down-strokes, forcing the air out with an audible “sss”. Focus on pressing your belly muscles towards your spine on each exhale.
• Change the number of pedal strokes based on terrain and your lung capacity, but always assign more strokes to the exhale.

#3 Altitude breathing

The first two exercises are aimed at helping you learn belly breathing on and off the bike. This third one is great for going beyond. This exercise simulates training at an altitude of 2,000 metres above sea level.

• Walk at a normal pace. Exhale, hold the breath and walk 10 steps.
• Breathe normally for 2-3 steps.
• Exhale, hold the breath and walk 15 steps. Repeat and increase the steps by 5 until you reach 50.

You can do a similar exercise on a bike, counting to your pedal strokes.

• Ride at a moderate pace with a cadence of about 90 rpms.
• Inhale for 2 strokes, hold your breath for 2 strokes, and exhale for 4 strokes.
• If this results in shallow breathing, adjust the “2,2,4” pattern to “4,4,8” or even higher.

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