Breathing for Cycling Performance Part 1

As cyclists and as humans for that matter we take lots of things for granted. One of the things that cyclists take for granted comes to mind is breathing. Yes we all breathe but we do it in an automatic fashion with out thought as to how breath could help us perform better.

If you have played other sports you may have been given rudimentary instruction on breathing techniques. The usual ones are breath in through the nose and breath out though the mouth and not to gasp for air. The latter usually happens for most cyclists when they have pushed them selves way to hard. The method of breathing in through the nose and breathing out through the mouth are only applicable to cyclists who are cross training, stretching or in the weight room.

So what is a cyclist suppose to do. By in large most cyclists will tell you that you should just breathe and exhale through your mouth. This too will not help you in scenarios that require higher levels of performance. What should be done is to breathe in through the nose and the mouth at the same time while exhaling through the mouth.

The other thing to consider is the breath itself. When breathing through an exercise, interval or climb use rounded breaths. A rounded breath is when you breathe into your abdomen rounding out your belly. This will feel awkward at first and you may have a tendency to over do it.

When climbing rather than focusing on breathing in more try to relax and focus on exhaling. When you are on the ragged edge of a climb it is easier to let out a fast sharp exhale than to breathe in deeply. When breathing in a rounded non-exaggerated method you are getting all the oxygen that can be used. However a fast sharp exhale can release more carbon dioxide from your lungs than during rounded breathing.

There is a strong cautionary note to be considered when using sharp exhales. To many of them close together can lead to hyperventilating. The last thing you want on a climb or just before a sprint is to be light headed. So what I try to practice on climbs in the middle of a ride is to use 3-4 sharp exhales. I time these by breaking my climbs up into thirds or fourths.

Now lets cover ragged breathing. Ragged breathing is what happens when you are at the sharp end of a pace line, bridging a gap or are about to crest a steep hill. Ragged breathing is usually a dead give away that you are toast. Can we ride at our limits and not gasp for air? Yes and no.

For the average cyclist once you begin ragged breathing you are entering into the top end of your anaerobic capacity. Translation? You’re going to pop! What is a cyclist to do when they are about to pop? You will need to back off your current pace and recover. Depending on your age and experience it could take 30 seconds to several minutes. Popping could mean the difference between a win or loosing out on bragging rights.

The best cure for ragged breathing and reaching your anaerobic threshold is experience and a little knowledge. Realizing your approaching the pop is half the battle.

When ragged breathing starts ask your self the following:

  • Where did it happen? Hill, Pace line, sprint, tempo riding
  • How hot is it?
  • Was there a head wind?
  • Did I fuel right?
  • Have I been recovering well?

Finally what was your HR when you popped and how long were you in that Heart Rate Zone? Has the scenario happened before at the same HR or higher?

After answering the above and recognizing that at a particular HR you come unglued you now have solved a major mystery in your performance. So if you find you can only hold on for so long with a particular HR what are you to do?

You have 3 choices:

  • Ignore the problem
  • Recognize when you are going anaerobic
  • Train to improve your threshold

I’ll give you a hint only 2 of the above suggestions will help you improve!

While using tactics will help more often than not most cyclists could really benefit from anaerobic training. Most anaerobic training is based on high intensity short intervals. These HIT intervals are meant to train your body to adapt to greater stress loads through short intense periods followed by full recovery.

I will rarely give workouts out without knowing who is to receive them and when they are going to do them. Timing and current level of fitness are critical to avoiding injury and illness when training at the highest intensities.

In the next article I will give some examples of what else you can do to improve your breathing.

If you feel your anaerobic capacity is holding you back from reaching your goals I can help you! If you’re ready to learn how email me and we will get started creating a new strength.

Have a great ride.

Coach Rob

25 Comments on “Breathing for Cycling Performance Part 1”

  1. Hi, I have only been cycling for 3 months, but have been training to do the Argus. My lung capacity has always been poor, and I find breathing properly is the hardest part of cycling. I tend to start getting a headache after the first hour and wonder if this has anything to do with not enough oxygen? Thank you for your website. Julie

  2. Hi Julie,

    And congrats on getting started with cycling. I would say that the head aches are probably not related to getting enough oxygen instead it’s more likely due to bike fit issue or even a hydration issue.

    If you have had hear or other respitory problems in the not so distance past then you might be right. However I find even new cyclists who are huffing and puffing to finish a hard ride are getting enough oxygen.

    I would speak with your local bike shop where you purchased your bike about getting a fit or looking at how you look on the bike now after you have been riding. Also many cyclists are prone to neck and shoulder pain due to getting use to riding or those who do not stretch after a ride.

    Poor form on the bike can contribute to neck and head aches. Try to stay relaxed with a slight bend in your elbows and keep tension out of your shoulders and neck when riding.

    Take a sip of water or sports drink every 5 minutes even you are not thirsty.

    Hope the above cures the headaches.

    Coach Rob

  3. Hi there Rob, I’ve been riding for about 1.5 years and would like to know if a particular pattern of breathing with cadence is important, if so is there any advise on how.

    Thank you

  4. Hey James,

    Great question and one that comes up from time to time. The quick answer is no set patern with cadence that will improve performance at any particular cadence. Here is an excerpt from a study on the subject based on cadence and runner strides “In other words, we’re efficient at our “natural” stride frequency not because we can breathe in sync with our strides, but (in part) because we don’t let ourselves get locked into one breathing pattern. Instead, we’re unconsciously trying different breathing patterns constantly, finding the one that’s most efficient at that moment and then re-optimizing a moment later. The moral: don’t try to consciously lock your breathing into a prescribed pattern.”

    You can read more about the study here:

    Rather than worry about breathing patterns I would suggest that you follow good pedaling techniques, use good posture on the bike and work on pedaling efficiency to improve your cadence.

    – Coach Rob

  5. Hi Rob I am cycling ok but the breathing on sharp hills or long drags gets very laboured and effects my ability to push on with the group. Any tips. Gerard

  6. Hi Gerrard,

    Labored breathing in my experience just boils down to a lack of aerobic capacity. There are a few tips I can think of off the top of my head but the one that sticks out the most is to use belly breathing when it gets tough. What I mean by this is to breathe into your belly. This will force you breathe deeply. I also recommend that you read any of the climbing articles I have on this site or listen to the climbing show at

  7. Hi Rob,

    I am hoping for suggestions. I have been riding consistently for the past 1.5 years. A number of years ago I had 2 lobes removed due to a tumor. I suffer on climbs (oxygen goes first) and I cant sustain max efforts very long (maybe 20 to 30 seconds). Any suggestions either riding techniques, breathing, something to take before a ride or diet to try to get the max out of my lungs?


  8. Hi Frank,
    I did a quick search on endurance athletes and lobectomy and found some good news for you. Check out the links below to see what I mean. It sounds as if you should be able to return to endurance sports but that it will take more time to develop the endurance that you once had but that you can if you are persistent. It does not sound as if you will need any particular medication or specialized rehab. Just more time doing what you are doing. Riding your bike.
    Study abstract: Effects of lung resection on pulmonary function and exercise capacity.
    Looks like this maybe a full copy of the study:

  9. Hello,

    I saw your great recommendations and wanted to get your advice . I recently started cycling and i’m loving it. I’m now starting to hit the hills and oh boy I suffer. I notice that at the peak I’m gasping for air and feel very light headed. Question: 1. do you think it has to do with my breathing? 2. What are your recommendation? I confess I have not mastered the technique of breathing on the hill as yet.


  10. Hi! I am a downhill mtb racer, which means that my races are very short (3-5 min) but very aerobically demanding. I have been working on my endurance for months now, primarily with intervals on the treadmill. I also practice my deep belly breathing every day and while on the treadmill. My problem is that when I get nervous, my lungs seem to tense up and my breathing becomes choppy. I try to take deep breaths, but it feels like something is pushing back. This ends with shortness of breath and muscle fatigue half way into my race run. Is there anything I can do to prevent this tightness in my chest before a competition?

  11. Hi Amanda, what kind of intervals are you doing on the trainer? Are you using a HR monitor and or a power meter to gauge performance? I don’t want to guess if you are doing intervals that helping or not providing the right training stress. You could also look at your bike fit to ensure you are dialed in for the optimal downhill position. Also I am assuming you are using a chest protector? When was the last time you checked its fit? Lots of people have race day jitters and these can manifest them in all kinds of performance draining ways. If its determined that you are working on the right kind of intervals, have a good bike and equipment fit then I would suggest you start looking at how you diminish the effects of your race day jitters. Practicing progressive relaxation techniques, meditative breathing and or race day visualization could go a long way to improving your race day performance.

  12. Hi Mike, in my experience with newly minted cyclists is choppy breathing due to breathing technique but instead its due to fitness. If you were not participating in an endurance sport prior to riding a bike then I would lean towards you needing more time developing Endurance, Anaerobic Endurance and Force to make breathing while climbing a bit less labored. If you would like to learn more about training factors such as Endurance and Force you can search my site for articles on training factors. Thanks for reading and good luck with the cycling!

  13. Hi! i`m a 41 year old male,i`ve been riding for the last 10 months on my Mtb up some steep hills etc with friends and its hard but i`m getting fitter very very slowly. i`ve bought a road bike (had about 8 rides on it) to get some extra rides in to get fitter,so all in all i`ve done about 1500 miles 200 of which on the road bike. but what i`m really struggling with is when i start riding up steep,long drag climbs i`m running out of breath, my legs are really strong,dont suffer from lactic acid build up,and had my heart rate up to 200 bpm a few times so the heart is! or i think its more than strong enough,on flats on the road bike i average 21mph, but as soon as it ramps up on long climbs i`m struggling to breath to the point i have to stop get some air in for 10 seconds then start again. i was asked if i had asthma by a friend but i don`t! well not that i know anyway. where am i going wrong? thanks in advance..

  14. Hi Remy, most anaerobic training requires a progressive warm up of 20 minutes or longer followed by 2 or more sets of intervals. The intervals are often short hard effort not measured by power or HR. These are “Full Gas” or “All Out” efforts lasting as long as 5seconds – 90 seconds in length. Each inter work interval rest period is short, only lasting 2-3 minutes of soft pedaling. Set rest intervals last usually 5 minutes. If you are interested in improving your anaerobic endurance and would like help I would be glad to help you. If you would like to try to go it alone look at the Tabata Protocol and the T-Max interval protocols.

  15. Great question John! You bring up that you feel that fitness is improving slowly. Fitness gains are difficult to measure without tracking certain performance data such as cadence, speed, HR and especially power. There is still great value in the subjective feel of how an athlete is progressing but with out the data it’s hard for a coach to know for sure. Climbing as I have pointed out in other comments relies heavily on Force and Muscle Endurance training factors. So when an athlete wants to get better at climbing then I prescribe workouts that focus on these two factors. The most common problems I see with athletes that want to be better climbers that are great in the flats are that they tend to be heavier, can spin pretty fast but are not dynamic in their spinning or have poor bike fit and climbing posture. So the cheapest fastest way up the hills is to loose a few pounds if you have them to shed! Cyclists that are great spinners in the flats that average 86-100RPM will often try to apply this to climbs and in many cases they can as long as they do not blow up and loose their ability to breathe. Instead learn how to climb at a lower RPM and not rely on the Heart as much but instead train to rely on muscle endurance and you will breathe easier. Climbing posture is also critical. Look at my article on climbing secrets and bike fitting to learn more! Hope this helps!

  16. I find it very hard not to inhale and exhale through my mouth when I get going above a very mild effort. Unfortunately this tends to make my mouth and throat dry out and causes my lungs to ache in cold air. Is there anything I can do? Should I be trying to train myself into breathing through my nose more?

  17. The short answer to most non medical breathing issues is to ride more and develop a better aerobic base of fitness. The reason your mouth and nose are drying out is that you are not drinking enough fluids on your ride. I take a sip off of a 20-24oz sport bottle every 5 minutes. I even set an alarm on my bike computer (Garmin 500) to let me know its time. When riding in cold weather you can ride with a balaclava AKA: Ski Mask made of lycra and pull it over your mouth and nose. As you breathe through the material it will warm the air you breathe.

  18. Hi. I´ve cycling for many years now. However, when I go hard and long, I tend to cramp in my belly, towards the right. Want to know if it is due to my breathing. Because I keep hydrated properly, but can not get rid of this cramp problem. Any suggestions?

  19. Hi Luis,

    Thank you for the question. I will answer here and will also provide even more feedback on the upcoming Athlete Q and A on the Endurance Quick Cast.

    What you are referring to is what runners will call a “stitch”. Cyclist get them as well but are not as common. There is no precise scientific explanation to what causes them but there are a few popular beliefs as to what may. The side stitch or ETAP (exercise-related transient abdominal pain) may be caused by an increase in blood flow to the liver or spleen. A plausible mechanism for the pain is that high internal pressure in the liver or spleen restricts blood flow, causing hypoxia. Another theory is that there is a shortage or imbalance of Electrolytes. Then the theory that I believe is more apt is that of athletes breathing to shallowly. So before reaching out to an endocrinologist for the first problem I strongly suggest that you add electrolytes to your bike bottle or add a pinch of sea salt to your existing sports drink. Also while riding on hilly terrain or when the pace of a ride picks up you need to consciously belly breathe. Belly breathing simply means that as you breathe in that you consciously breathe in enough that your belly rounds out. I will add some more details and tips to my response on the up coming Endurance Quick Cast Q and A. Great question!

  20. Hi, I’m beginning to start training for a high profile XC MTB Race Series next spring. Are there any specific exercises that can help with building speed and endurance at a hard race pace?

  21. Hi Thomas,

    In terms of training, factors used to improve cycling performance coaches recognize many. I have added links to articles below that can help you further discover ways to help.

    This off-season I would recommend a mix of high cadence drills, one to two times a week of riding in your Zone 3-4 HR or power and the rest of the time riding in a strict Zone 2 HR or Power. After approx 6-8 weeks of this remove the cadence focus and add force by getting more climbing in. Afer another 4-6 weeks of this remove the force/climbing aspect. After that start cutting volume/time training and include 1 workout a week of short explosive efforts and 1 workout a week at Vo2 max. There you go.

    There are no 1, 2, or 3 workouts that will make you a faster rider. I do not normally answer broad question comments but I thought it would help to see some structure. When racing specificity is required but so is a periodized program set up to help get you prepare to support your race-specific goals. You can use the search engine at the bottom of the page to help you find more articles here on training periodization to learn more.

  22. I posted a question in late Feb 2013 and just came back to see there was a question from Denise. In the past 4 years I have learned quite a bit about my body performance from the perspective of a cyclist who monitors HR and cadence closely. I am now 59 and 205 lbs and 22 years removed from surgery that removed 2 lobes. I have found that I do best at a cadence of about 65 to 70 versus others that are in the 80 to 90 range. This means I am more anaerobic zone producing more lactate. I discover sport legs which helps me tremendously deal with the lactic acid (similar ride with and without sport legs). I have always been more of a sprinter than a long distance type of athlete. I judiciously monitor my HR and try to understand how to maximize my body. I need to drink lots of water (far more than anyone else I ride with) and take extra potassium to keep my HR under control. I monitor my HR actively via my Garmin. My HR is my indicator on when to start to cut back my effort. Climbing hills are a thing of the past, I don’t have enough oxygen, I build up lactic acid too quickly, I am in slow motion survival mode about 7% grades just grinding out a climb. So as far as biking is concerned, lower cadence, monitoring the HR, lots of fluids and potassium, low expectations for climbing hills, learning to pace my effort sooner rather than blowing up. Aside from running out of breath while climbing stairs – which is embarrassing, in normal every day non demanding things I am fine. I was able to participate in a triathlon in the past 2 years though with no dreams of posting a good time. Since my lobes were removed from my right side, I have one remaining and when lying down on my right or left side, I feel far greater difficulty breathing and I cant do it when after any form of exercise. Sorry this took so long to provide additional feedback.

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