Getting the right mix of air and techniques

Man on a bicycle just coming over the top of a hill

Breathe right: correct technique will get you over stressful situations (like hills) a lot easier. Photo: Christian Barkla

There’s a story about Socrates in which a proud young man supposedly asked, ‘Oh great Socrates, I came to you for knowledge.’ Socrates led him down to the sea into waist-deep water. ‘Tell me again what you want,’ he said. ‘Knowledge.’ Socrates pushed him down under the water, holding him there for 30 seconds. ‘Now, what do you want?’ The young man spluttered, ‘Wisdom, oh great Socrates.’ Again the philosopher pushed him under. When he let him up again, he asked, ‘What do you want?’ ‘Knowledge, oh wise and …’ he managed to spit out before Socrates held him under again, this time even longer. ‘What do you want?’ repeated Socrates. The younger man coughed and gasped. ‘Air!’ he shouted, ‘I want air!’ Socrates replied, ‘When you want knowledge as much as you want air, you’ll get knowledge.’

I have used the above story to reflect on one of the most important aspects of becoming a proficient athlete in the sport of cycling, through the simple but much needed art of “controlling our breathing”.  Not all of us come from a sporting background and our ability to master the art of controlled breathing when placed under duress is not a natural action.

Breathing in through the nose filling the whole upper and lower body chambers as our lungs are like bellows and then expelling out the mouth sounds simple until we add stress. Any anxiety that is allowed to take over our mind will have a dramatic effect on our ability to control our breathing.  When we think we are “under duress” then that’s how we will respond “being under duress.” Like every aspect of cycling there is a discipline that must be learnt, re-learnt and learnt again till it becomes a natural response of the body and mind.

Loved this quote when I came across it checking out whether I was on the right track and it was matching my experience (Dr Hans Selye a pioneering stress researcher, famously said, “complete freedom from stress is death.”) Stress is required for us to grow and mature, knowing how far we can stress ourselves is another subject matter in itself.  Learning to increase our breathing capacity will place stress on our airways and associated finely tuned breathing apparatus. If the mind is not strengthened as well as being taught not to stress and be anxious then our muscles will not remain relaxed and our breathing will increase to compensate and we lose control of the breathing more quickly.

Have watched many new riders when starting off when another rider gets beside them and encourages them to keep their focus on a hill to hold and sustain their pedalling action and most times they will go twice as far as they would unassisted and encouraged if they maintain their breathing.  As soon as the breathing control is lost any muscle control is depleted almost immediately. When our breathing is shortened or held to try to get little extra it actually works against the muscles.

If you are interested in knowing more about the increased benefits of breathing jump onto the internet and type  “cycling and breathing”  into Google and you will find any amount of helpful information on increasing your lung capacity strength and endurance.  There are some interesting views on deep breathing exercises and matching cadence and breathing for speed and strength. Oh for the joy of learning this sooner would see many riders progress much quicker when they can feed to blood with oxygen to feed the muscles we use to ride proficiently.

Please be aware that thinking oh “I tried that once and doesn’t work for me” is not a fair assessment.  Some of these techniques may take months before the benefits are realised in particular where individuals are struggling with core strength development and foot control in a pedal action and general posture on the bike. Learning to take control of breathing and when this is conquered will allow for a clearer focus on some of these more technical developments that facilitates cycling technique proficiency.

The old saying “any idiot can ride a bike” makes me wonder and rejoice that we have not yet reached “idiot status” as many of us struggle with getting it all together to essentially reach “the euphoria of cycling”.

See you on the road soon God willing


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