By Arnie Baker, MD
Focus has intensity, width, direction, and relevance. Athletes can learn to intensify, narrow, internalize, and associate their focus and thereby improve their performance. Learning focused, coordinated breathing is one of the best tools to achieve this gain.
Focus, or attention, may be strong or weak, external or internal; narrow or wide; associated or dissociated.
External focus is attention directed outside the body. Internal focus is attention directed inward.
Narrow focus is restricted; wide focus, like peripheral vision, takes in a large field of view.
Beginners frequently dissociate—separate what they are thinking about from what they are doing. For example, beginners may think about favorite restaurants while racing.
Elite athletes associate. They invariably try to keep from dissociating.
The harder the effort, the more important it is to be able to keep a strong, narrow, internal, associated focus.
Studies show that elite time trialists do precisely this: they keep a strong, narrow, internal, and associated focus—they concentrate within—not on the flowers on the hillside, upcoming television shows, or the conflict in the Middle East.
Although studies show that elite athletes are more focused than beginners are, it is something elite athletes learn. If beginners learn focus techniques, they benefit as well.
In many events, it is important to be able to shift focus. For example in a road race, it is important to have a wide, external focus in order to see competitors up the road or falling behind, and then have a narrow, internal focus in order to work harder to make the break or leave others further behind.
Riding recreationally along the roadway, it is important to shift focus: To narrowly pay attention to potholes just a few feet ahead as well as to widely notice, for example, the flow of traffic, stop signs, pedestrians, opening car doors, animals, and other riders.
Riders who disassociate while riding, thinking about their jobs or family arguments may be more likely to have accidents.
The ability to shift and hold focus is a critical element that separates champion athletes from beginners.
Although as efforts increase in intensity elite athletes increase the intensity of their focus, shift their focus inward, and associate—they also maintain flexibility in width and direction.
For example, in track pursuit (an effort of several minutes’ duration), in addition to focusing on their effort, athletes must have an external focus on their line—they must make sure that they don’t drift upward on the track, traveling farther.
Got rhythm? Watch video footage and listen to commentary of time trialists or climbers narrated by the well-known voice of cycling, Phil Liggett, and you will hear about riders “getting into a good rhythm” or “not in their rhythm.”
Steady-state hard effort demands a good rhythm. Such a rhythm is part of all aerobic endurance sports such as swimming, running, rowing, marching.
Humming or singing a song is one way to keep rhythm—hence soldiers’ marching songs. Counting pedal strokes is another.
Music is used in many aerobics and spin classes—and this may be its best use.
Many riders use music during their stationary trainer workouts.
Music is most suitable for moderately-high level, rhythmic, aerobic work. It helps athletes increase arousal and focus on their work.
Sophisticated set-ups allow music to be played at variable rates—allowing instructors to coordinate the music’s beat with the exercise rhythm.
However, music may not always coordinate with the best cadence for any given rider, and is generally not suitable for the highest intensity work that requires an internal focus.
Listening to music while riding on the road or trail is not safe. Racers also need to train without music so that they can learn self-monitoring and pacing for racing.
Focus & Breathing
Focus on effort and the self-monitoring of effort are characteristics of elite athletes.
Breathing is one of the cardinal self-monitoring focus tools.
Of course, you breathe whether you think about it or not: from as little as 10 times per minute at rest to more than 60 times per minute at maximal effort.
Breathing technique is important in hard, steady efforts. It is not important when you are noodling—riding slowly. It may not be applicable when you are constantly changing efforts, as in criteriums or when you are making a maximum effort, as in sprinting.
Breathing technique is also important when you want to keep to a pace, even if it is not at a high threshold. By breathing regularly, your pace will stay steady as well.
Focused breathing is also well known to help when you face a crisis—whether related to pace, a cramp, or a crash. It helps get you back on track. After all, think how many women in labor have been helped with the focused breathing techniques of Lamaze.
Focus & Breathing Helps Beginners
Although champion athletes have been the most closely studied, focus is just as important for beginners. It is very helpful for all riders when climbing long steady hills.
Almost all of riders will benefit from learning to breath and count even if it only helps them get to the top of the next hill before they know it.
Why Focused Breathing Works
Focusing on breathing helps us draw on our reserves and get closer to reaching our potential.
Consider an analogy: If you can normally perform about 20 push-ups, performing 10 is a piece of cake, and you do not need to focus on technique. However, if you are trying to do 21, it is a different story. You need focus. You need to count. You do not want outside distraction, people talking to you. If you focus, if you count each push-up, you can get closer to the limit of your potential.
Studies of elite athletes show that they focus on how their bodies are working, that they develop a sense of pace, and that they constantly seek to test their pace and efforts.
Beginners tend to focus more on the outside environment and factors not within their control. Focusing on breathing is a key to self-monitoring of effort and developing the ability to work to your maximum potential.
How Often Should You Breathe?
To some extent, you do not have much choice. It is not that one can say you should breathe this many times a minute and just do it. For any given effort, there will be a limited range of what is comfortable.
You can vary the frequency of your breathing by modifying the depth of your breathing.
Notice your breathing and co-ordinate it with the pedal stroke of your legs. This is the key to unlocking a good rhythm.
For many riders, working at about 75% of maximum heart rate, breathing frequency will be about 30 times per minute. For many riders, working at 85+% of maximum heart rate (near VO2 max), breathing frequency will be about 60 times per minute.
Cadence, or number of pedal strokes per minute, will vary with the type of riding.
Timing your breaths with pedal strokes will therefore vary depending upon how hard you are working and the type of riding you are performing.
For many riders, climbing at a cadence of 60 rpm, breath timing will be once every two pedal strokes at 75% of maximum heart rate, once every pedal stroke and a half at 80% of maximum heart rate, and once every stroke at 85+% of maximum heart rate.
For many riders, at maximal road time-trial pace, breath timing will be once every stroke and a half. Since cadence will be about 85 rpm, this will translate into a breathing rate of about 55 times per minute at 90% of maximum heart rate.
Concentrate on Breathing Out
When you concentrate on breathing, concentrate on breathing out—exhaling, rather than breathing in—inhaling.
Use Your Mouth
At high-aerobic intensity, the nasal passages restrict airflow. Nasal dilators have not been shown to be effective.
Consider Purse Breathing
Slightly narrowing your lips when breathing may improve air exchange for some riders, yet not overly restrict airflow.
In many riders, the breathing passages may partially collapse or constrict.
The positive pressure exerted through the breathing passages may help keep them from collapsing and improve air exchange.
Learn to Belly Breathe
Breathing with your diaphragm and expanding your abdomen may increase lung capacity, improve relaxation, and use less energy.
It also uses different muscles than the standard chest breathing, and so may be helpful to help prevent you from tiring from prolonged respiratory muscle work.
Learn to belly breathe lying flat on your back with a book on your abdomen. As you breathe in, the book should rise.
Alternate Stroke Emphasis
If you are breathing once every pedal stroke and a half, you will naturally alternate emphasis on the left and right leg.
If you breathe once every stroke, your emphasis may be on one leg. Consider breathing once every stroke on your left leg for 10 strokes, then once every stroke on your right for 10 strokes, then your left, and so on.
By varying your emphasis, you make the exercise more interesting. Shifting your focus reduces boredom. It also prevents fatigue or stress on one side vs. the other.
Change Your Breathing
It is not as if you should always have the same rhythm. Consider the analogy of music. It may have a basic rhythm or beat. However, this need not stay constant for the whole composition. Sometimes it shifts to another rhythm, or a third, only to return to the original later.
It is the same thing with riding. Suppose you are climbing, breathing every stroke and a half. As you get near the summit, you can change your rhythm to every stroke as you pick up the pace to surge over the top.
Caution: Overbreathing can be a problem. Anxiety can cause hyperventilation; in some athletes, the reverse is true: overbreathing can increase anxiety.
The Work of Breathing
Focused, coordinated breathing does something else: It reduces the work of breathing.
At maximal work levels, the muscles of breathing can use up to 20% of the energy and oxygen you are producing and need. Energy you save by improving breathing economy can be used by your legs to get you down the road.
Exercises for Focused Breathing
Let us face it, not all of us were born with rhythm. Perfecting breathing technique takes practice.
Efforts on a stationary trainer can be precisely controlled. Stationary trainer workouts can provide an excellent place to start learning breathing techniques.
- During a steady 75% to 80% of maximum heart rate effort at 90 rpm, focus on exhaling every two pedal strokes.
- Pick up the pace about 10% and concentrate on breathing every stroke for about 15 seconds.
- Back off to steady-state 75% to 80% of maximum heart rate effort again. Focus on exhaling every two pedal strokes again, this time counting strokes of the alternate leg.
- Work at about 85% of maximum heart rate effort at 90 rpm and focus on an every-stroke-and-a-half rhythm. Breathe once every second.
The Arnie Waltz
Those of you with musical talent may have instantly understood the breathing-every-pedal-stroke-and-a-half concept—that results in alternate stroke emphasis and a breathing rate of about 55 times per minute when time trialing.
Think of it perhaps as a waltz—you know, the ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three rhythm.
Each time you pedal, with the left or the right leg, count. Each time you have a count of ONE, breathe out. It is easy—now you are doing the Arnie Waltz!
Picking Up the Pace
Want to go a little faster? Try focusing on your breathing, getting a rhythm. Then slightly increase your breathing rate. Let your cadence increase with your higher breathing rate. Watch your speed computer. You will go faster!
Athletes can learn to intensify, narrow, internalize, and associate their focus and thereby improve their performance. Like fitness training, breath training requires practice. With practice, breathing techniques will become second nature, automatically improving focus, training, and race performance.
Greg Titus says
There are significant benefits to deep nasal breathing during vigorous exercise, and athletics is largely unaware of it. Dr. John Douillard, in “Body, Mind, and Sport” back in the mid-1990s, taught a breathing technique as part of a comprehensive program that enhances athletic performance. I’ve been doing nasal breathing when cycling for over 25 years, and can attest to its effectiveness and benefits. I’m not trying to sell or promote Douillard’s program. I’m bringing to the attention of readers of this article that there’s a lot more to breathing than what Dr. Baker has so nicely and thoroughly described. Nasal breathing is a worthwhile avenue of pursuit, but my experience is that most cyclists won’t stay with it long enough to appreciate the results. Maybe there’s a few out there who will, so this reply is for them, and Dr. Baker (kudos for a nice article!).
Road Bike Rider says
Thanks for that comment. I’m going to read that book, because I have read a couple of others about breathing. FYI, we have previously covered nasal breathing here: https://www.roadbikerider.com/nasal-breathing-cycling/
Greg Titus says
Thanks for the link to that article on nasal breathing! The point about how long it takes to start noticing improvements/change…about 2 months of consistent training…is important. You can’t start nasal breathing and expect immediate results. When I adopted nasal breathing, I was persistent to ‘get it’, and was dropped early in group rides. It took about a year before I could ‘hang with the gang’, but I achieved my goal of being able to ride with them doing nasal breathing.
Steve C says
Nice article Doc B
Sometimes on long hard efforts, it also helps if I remind myself to exhale completely. It’s difficult to keep a good rhythm is you’re breathing shallow.
Carl Bach says
So one breath is in and then out or is it just in or just out?