Every Breath You Take...
This is one of three factsheets that belong to the "energy from oxygen" collection. First we covered, our Heart Rate, then comes this one, before we look at the final route of the journey, the powerhouse themselves, The Muscles.
The relationship between all of them are as linked as the bars, seat, pedals and wheels on your bike. Compromise on one and you compromise the whole.
At first glance, it may appear that they have nothing to do with you or your potential as a bike rider. And some might say, it's genetics, you can't do anything about it anyway, so just buy lighter wheels.
However, a full, or even partial, understanding of the information within and around these articles will help you become a fitter, faster, stronger cyclist. And isn't that the reason we are all here?
The Heart of the Matter
To help you in your quest to become a better cyclist, the very first thing you must understand about cycling in general, and cycle racing in particular, is that it is a sport based first and foremost, on oxygen.
Your primary objective, is to get the oxygen from outside of your body, to the inside of your muscles (and out again), in as legitimately an efficient and effective manner as possible.
If you don't believe this, then ask yourself, why did so many pro riders take the "naughty sweets"? It wasn't because they liked the taste!
Our coaching programmes, and those of all good coaches, understand this physiological demand and try to find the best way of stressing your body to its limits, without breaking it. Doing the right things, in the right order, at the right intensity for the right time, delivers the right results.
Each coach has their own philosophy and their own way of approaching the problem, depending on their knowledge, their resources and the quality of the athletes with whom they work.
Fundamentally, everyone whether coached or not, whether they understand it or not, is trying to release that "nature-imposed grip around their throat" to get more "fuel-igniting" oxygen in to their "engine-like" body, to make them go faster for longer.
Life Before Sport
I know this seems an oxymoron to you dedicated athletes out there, but there are some things more important than cycling.
One of the primary objectives of a racing cyclist, is to remain alive for the duration of their training and event. So pay attention; there might be a test at the end.
Oxygen is carried by the red blood cells, through your arteries, to your brain and other internal organs to keep you alive.
These areas of importance normally get first dibs on the oxygen entering your body. What's left over, gets divided between the muscles doing the work asked of them and lactate clearing.
Under normal circumstances, between 95 and 100% of all the blood cells passing through the lungs are "loaded" with oxygen; but certain medical conditions may inhibit full uptake. Have you noticed how many top sports people have a Therapeutic Use Exemption for an asthma inhaler? More, I would suggest, than the average population profile; even allowing for the widest of standard deviations.
As a matter of interest, oxygenated blood is bright red, de-oxygenated blood is dark red. When I take lactate readings at the end of a wVO2max test, the blood is very dark indeed, due to the athlete having spent around three minutes in oxygen debt and having almost sucked the air out of the room.
When I do Lactate Ramp Tests, you can see the blood colour change shade as the test progresses! Really weird. Luckily the athlete is too preoccupied to notice.
For our purposes, the air outside of our body is composed of 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, with Argon, Carbon Dioxide and various others making up the remaining 1%. This, ignoring traffic exhaust fumes, is what we breath in through our nose and mouth.
The semi-toxic mixture, travels down the throat to our lungs. The right one of which is slightly bigger than the left; being 55-60% of the total volume. This is because the heart, on the centre left of the body, sits in the pericardial cavity which impinges on the volume of the left lung.
Once the air finds itself in the lungs, it is filtered and processed. Carbon dioxide and other stuff is expelled (along with water vapour which you see on a cold day, but not on a warm one) and the oxygen is kept, to dissolve through the 300 million or so alveoli at the end of the lungs. If opened up, your lungs would be 40 times greater than the surface area of your body!
Once in the alveoli, a "gas exchange" takes place with the oxygen hopping in to the bloodstream's red cells and the returning carbon dioxide (held in the plasma) hopping out. This is due to the different pressures and density of the gasses. If you picture along the lines of sweat escaping your Gore-Tex jacket but rain not being able to get in, then that's how this bit of physiological trickery works.
Once in the blood, for it's journey to the heart, oxygen quickly bonds itself to haemoglobin (it now takes on "magnetic properties!"). As you can see the heart's not far away, so it doesn't take too long.
My Heart Goes Boom Bang a Bang
Showing my age here, but I like the title
The oxygen-rich blood is sucked in to the heart, then blown out of the aorta, through the arteries to begin its journey to the body's main oxygen demanding organs, tissues and muscles.
Once there, it finds itself in the (thinner than human hair) capillaries, of, for our purposes, the hard working leg muscles.
Inside the muscle, another pressure differentiation takes place and the oxygen hops in to the cell walls, looking for mitochondria. Simultaneously, carbon dioxide hops out of the tissue, in to the blood plasma for a return to the lungs, from where it's expelled as a waste product back in to the atmosphere.
The oxygen, once in the mitochondria, goes straight to it's point of need and reacts with the glucose it finds to provide energy to power the muscle. We'll cover this in more detail in an accompanying factsheet.
Thanks But What Now?
So that's the theory out of the way, how can this help you ride your bike faster? Well there is a point to all this, so please read on.
A quick recap;
▼ plasma contains red blood cells
▼ red blood cells transport oxygen
▼ oxygen seeks out mitochondria
▼ mitochondria distribute oxygen
▼ oxygen plus glucose equals energy
And there, in a nutshell, is everything you need to know about coaching, training, and riding your bike quickly.
There are five points in the recap above. Your job, or that of your coach, is to maximise each of those points, throughout your training programme and ensure they all peak for your key event.
Cycling is a sport that rewards hard work. As the cliché says, the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary!
Hard work is the only legitimate route to success, but you can help yourself by being smart about your training and how you organise your preparation to include periods of building and sustainable over-reaching.
In our 12 week Base Build Programmes, we bring riders on quicker than the more traditional (old-fashioned?) methods of training by ensuring the first micro-cycle is helping increase mitochondrial density and developing glycogen storage, thus maximising future potential by immediately hitting points three, four and five above.
It doesn't matter how big your lungs are (I've seen newbies hit over 6.5 litres!), if there's no mitochondria to deliver it, or adequate glucose storage when it gets to the muscle, the equation breaks down.
Our second micro-cycle works on, amongst other things, increasing plasma volume. More plasma equals higher red blood cell count (points one and two), meaning more oxygen can be transported more efficiently to the now increased numbers of waiting mitochondria, more carbon can be removed and more lactate can be processed.
No use having more oxygen carrying sacs waiting to make you stronger if the delivery system is causing a pinch point!
Sadly, this was also recognized by some of the less scrupulous coaches and athletes, who saw blood transfusions and EPO as quick-fix answers.
The third micro cycle develops cardiac output (heart stroke and volume) and increases the density of muscle capillarization.
This allows the heart to deliver previous volumes of blood and oxygen, but at a lower heart rate.
When the blood and oxygen arrives at the muscles, and the now constant shuttle bus mitochondria, there's no funnel delay because the capillaries are now more like a motorway than a rural road network.
More capillaries, doing less individual effort, with more oxygen available, delivered with more plasma allows a lower metabolic cost for the same energy delivery. Metabolic cost? You'll understand this as lactate production. Now I've got your attention!
Right Things Right Order
The first twelve weeks of your training cycle should be putting the building blocks in place for a follow on step-change 8 week Pre-Comp Programme, that should be configured in such a way as to take your athletic development, and suffering, to a new level.
So you need to ensure that your training helps maximise your potential for the season to come by covering these bases early in your development. Failure to do so, by doing the right things but in the wrong order, or not doing them at all, could hamper your progress, or your ability to realise your full potential, later in the season.
And there's no use doing all of the above if you now have your oxygen input delivery system as the bottleneck to your success.
Once your key objectives come in to view, you need to make sure you have perfected your breathing technique to get the oxygen spark in place, to ignite the glycogen fuel, as quickly and efficiently as you can. As luck would have it, here's how...
How hard can it be? Breathing is the most natural thing in the world. You've done it, without instruction, since someone took you, hung you upside down and smacked your backside.
You don't have to tell your heart to beat, so why should you have to think about breathing; surely it will all take care of itself? Well you wouldn't be the first to fall in to that trap.
Breathing is controlled by sets of muscles working in harmony around the lungs.
The rib cage has the Intercostal Muscles, which are "paired" and found between and around each of our ribs. The external ones pull out to enlarge the rib cage, the inner ones contract to expel air.
Above the rib cage are the Scalenes, which are primarily neck muscles but they do aid respiration. Below the rib cage is the parachute-like, thoracic diaphragm that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. The dual purpose diaphragm not only helps you breath, it helps you poo!
Breathing for the Masses
We've all done it and we all do it. Lazy breathing. Why would we do anything else? Breathing, like most things in life, has become a passive activity. We pay it little regard, unless we're getting dropped on a climb.
We have bikes that are better than those of "normal" people, we train more than normal people, we eat better than normal people and we are more competitive than normal people. We are fitter, healthier and smarter, than normal people. So why do most of us, when on the bike, breath like normal people?
We breath in thorough the nose and out through the mouth. When the going gets tough, we might breath through the mouth as well. As we go faster, we breath faster. Just like normal people would.
To increase your performance you need to pay as much attention to your breathing as you do to every other facet of your event preparation. Breathing like a normal person will give you normal results. How can it not? It's time for a re-think.
We all train our legs, we all tune our bikes, we wear skinsuits for time trials and we spend thousands, buying aero frames, aero wheels, carbon bottle cages and the like. All this investment to go faster when the one thing that can help you the most, is absolutely free.
Performance Breathing is suited to repetitive activity. What can be more repetitive than four hours at 95 rpm? There are around 21,600 pedal pushes in a four hour ride, powered by the around 15,000 breaths. Imagine if you could increase the efficiency of that by just 1%.
Swimmers and rowers have no option other than to synch their breathing to their stroke pattern. Cyclists should aim to do the same. You're looking for "quiet intensity". Each breath you take should be of a higher quality, in both depth and "clean-gas" concentration. This cannot be done through just breathing quicker.
Breathing quicker results in "panting". Easily described as short, sharp, shallow breaths that are a self-defeating, one-way trip to the back door. Panting results in using the top of the lungs as the thoracic cavity has less time to fill and transfer the spark igniting gases in to the sponge like alveoli. Panting is bad. You have gears on your bike, so put gears on your breathing; adjust both as the speed, and oxygen demand, rises.
During my car racing days, all the "go faster boy racers" used to fit bigger carbs, to get the gasses in to the engine to make it go quicker. The clever ones realised that it's getting the gasses out that makes an engine go quicker, so replaced the exhaust before they worked on the engine.
Unfortunately for us humans, we use the same tube to get the gasses in and get them out again. So we have to box clever and synchonise the two operations. It starts with the exhale.
Oxygen Good Carbon Bad
Have you noticed how the track sprinters, just before their event, have one huge exhale? Clear the lungs of carbon dioxide and get everything out, to allow free passage of the gasses going in. There's no use leaving 20% of "dirty air" in the "alveoli dense" base of your lungs when you're trying to ride at full-gas. Full-gas requires clean gas.
You can aid the clearing of old gases by expelling the air within your lungs with more force than usual, but not stupidly so. You don't want to sound like a whale; just go about it with quiet intensity and get all the air out, starting at the base of your lungs and squeezing upwards.
You do this by "overworking" the diaphragm and intercostal muscles. Train them as you would the rest of the muscles in your body. If you can deliberately exaggerate breathing in and out, for as few as five minutes a day, for 30 days, you can become much more efficient in your breathing.
In the old days, we used to build these muscles with a controlled expansion and deflation of a normal household water bottle. But I don't think health and safety will allow that now; so you may want to look at the various breathing tools on the market.
Is Bigger Better?
We've seen lots of cyclists through our doors over the last ten years or so, and all have blown "in to the tubes". A spirometer and peak-flow meter measure the lung capacity and effectiveness of all athlete's that have been through our testing procedures.
There's no getting away from the fact that that those with the larger lung capacity have the ability to produce more power than those lower than them. Once I've seen the lung numbers, I can tell straight away where that rider would fit in the power charts.
It doesn't mean they can produce the power there and then. A newbie with a six litre
lung capacity ain't going to beat a seasoned racer with a five
But they have the "potential ability" to do so at some point in the future.
So if two riders have a similar lung capacity, apart from all the other physiological differences, they have the ability to produce similar power so will need to make the most of what they have if they want to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Increasing the rate of your breathing doesn't necessarily mean you increase the volume of oxygen in to your blood. You just shift the same amount of air but less efficiently. It's like making three trips around the supermarket with a basket, instead of getting a trolley.
You need to breath deeper, not quicker. And you can't breath deeper unless you make full use of your diaphragm.
It's all about the belly
No one's ever going to sell a cycling book with that title, that's for sure. If you've ever seen a pro cyclist without their top on, it's not a pretty sight. There's lean and there's "oh my goodness". So why is it, when you see a full-on champion, in full-on time trial flight, they appear to have a full-on beer belly and a huge chest/back circumference?
There's a few reasons we won't go in to now, but some of it is down to their huge lungs and their over developed diaphragm pumping away like a blacksmith's bellows.
If you want a crack at Chris Boardman's hour record, you need to be producing, at 70 kilos, around 460 watts (6.57 w/kg) for sixty minutes and have a VO2max of 80 ml/kg. That takes a fair bit of oxygen/air shifting and you ain't going to do that by breathing quickly. Oh, and while we're here, just take a look at those sparrow legs. Bradley's, not mine! And while you're there, take a peek at those bulging arteries in the arms.
This factsheet is now long enough. It would take as long again to explain the differing systems out there, but you should now have enough to understand that there's more to this game than going the gym to develop your quads and riding around for a thousand miles at slow pace in the winter to be faster in the summer.
If you want to breath more efficiently and effectively you need to start working on your diaphragm skills. Yoga and Pilates are good for this type of stuff but for a quick overview, just type in "sports breathing" in to your search engine of choice, or any of these alternatives; belly, abdominal or diaphragm breathing.
Ignore the flaky stuff that you find, and you will, just get one that works for you and make it a habit.
Louise Shaw ~ wVO2max Test
On the ragged edge, but keeping her breathing under control on the way to a new PB
One you may want to try is my (although I'm sure I never invented it) tongue/valve technique. I've done a bit with aero and fluid dynamics and know a bit about crowd control and emergency situations; I have an eclectic CV. I joined the two bits together and came up with this system, which works for me.
When you breath out, stick the tip of your tongue at the base of your bottom set of teeth, and exhale from the diaphragm as described above. Get it all out smoothly and calmly.
When you breath in, through your nose and mouth, put the tip of your tongue behind your top set of teeth. Whoever said "that causes an obstruction" go to the back of the class! What it causes is a low pressure area behind the tongue.
Have you noticed when you descend (or the person in front of you does) how your gilt billows out behind you? People think it's air inside, trying to get out. It's not.
It's the air behind you, pulling it away from your body. The front of you body causes a high-pressure area, air rushes in to the low pressure area, dragging the clothing away from your body.
Your tongue causes a high pressure area and heats the air up that passes over it, which is now passing quicker than it would if it wasn't there. The movement of the tongue, also regulates your breathing and consciously forces you to breath slower and deeper.
Breath out, tongue down; breath in tongue raised. As simple as it is effective. Don't stick your tongue out when breathing out, it swells up at the back, blocking the passageway. Again; what have you got to lose? Try it on a long climb just for fun. If you don't like it, dump it.
Bringing it all together
Once you start with the premise that oxygen is the most important thing you need to propel your bike fast, you can make best use of all the other little physiological building blocks you've put in place while you've been training hard.
Practice at home, in the office, when you're climbing, when you're time trailing or even when you're on a recovery ride. Get it right when there's no need to and when you come to the pressure point of a race or an event, it will be second nature and an automatic reflex.
You only need to be 1% better than you now are, and you only need to pedal one rev per minute faster to get a TT PB, a Strava PR or drop the person next to you on a climb.
So, do a bit of "googling" to find a system that works best for you. There are a few charlatans out there, so once again, look for something mainstream, or cutting edge but proven, and don't hand any money over!
Here's someone, as maverick as they come. He could well be one of the world's best cyclists. If the UCI had let him. Mr Graeme Obree...
The respiratory system separates oxygen from the air we breath in, and delivers it, through our blood, to the heart for the cardiovascular system to transport it to our brain and the muscular skeletal system.
Almost all the cyclists I see, are hell bent on building their muscles to make them go faster. Because you can see big muscles!
No one knows how big your heart and lungs are. Working on these systems show no obvious returns, unless you count podium places!
Concentrate on this hidden gem and not only will you ride faster you can poo quicker as well!
And if you don't believe this is important and can change your place in the pecking order, hold your breath for thirty seconds while cycling and see what happens!
Breath well, breath hard, breath deep...