Do You Coach Breath?

Heart rate. Zones. Intensity. Rate of Perceived Exertion. As cycling instructors, these words are as familiar to us as our own names. They are the foundation for ride profiles and account for much of our coaching and cuing. We can coach them in our sleep. But do you coach what is at the heart of these words – breath?

When we ask our riders to add resistance and come out of the saddle for a hard effort, we’re good at describing what will happen: their heart rates will increase, they will enter a different zone, they will perceive the exertion as hard. We know how to tactically cue that increase in intensity – turn the knob, lift with your legs, land on the bullhorns and go! And we know how to describe the results – heart rate rises, heat turns on, it’s getting harder to breathe. Often, we limit our breath language to describing the result of physical effort, but what about coaching breath as a tool to enable the effort?

My epiphany came during a ride this week while thinking about coaching movement transitions (standing to seated and vice versa).  I realized I was focused on three things: form to rise and lower, fighting the urge to take too much resistance off when transitioning from a hard effort to a lesser effort, and being aware that our heart rates continue to rise after a hard effort so patience is required to level our breath and stay with a challenging, albeit lesser, effort. But nothing about how to manage breath or even proper breathing to start with! If you’re like me – a little lax on coaching breath – here are a few tips for adding that crucial aspect of cycling back into your repertoire.

Let’s start at the beginning. During the warm-up, have riders sit up and place their hands just below their rib cage. Explain that breathing from their diaphragm, that big, parachute-like muscle sitting below their lungs, is key to getting the most out of their ride. Instruct them to inhale by pushing out their stomach muscles and exhale by contracting those same muscles. Cue three seconds in, three seconds out. Do this for a minimum of thirty seconds. Let them know it will likely feel awkward at first, but like any new skill, in time it will become second nature. Have them watch their hands for several breaths to see and feel their breathing. Invite them to notice the calm rhythm diaphragmatic breathing invokes. Then have them revert to chest breath: breathing with their rib cage, where the chest lifts and lowers. Ask them to note the difference. Is one shallow and constricting (chest) and the other deep and expansive (diaphragmatic)?

Once the fundamental how is established, start to coach and cue breath to help achieve movement, intensity and duration. For example: “As we settle into this climb, relax your upper body, anchor your hips in the saddle, make space for your diaphragm (or parachute to add a visual) to expand. Feel your stomach expand and contract. Take deep, rhythmic breath in through your nose, then out through your nose.”  As you cue adding resistance to increase intensity/entering a higher zone: “Lower musculature is working harder. Marry muscle and breath. Push that breath muscle out a bit further, pull it in a bit deeper.” As you deliver anaerobic cuing, “Legs pushing down and pulling up, strong and hard. Diaphragm pushing out and pulling in. Breath and muscles working in tandem. Breath shifts to mouth. Use your breathing superpower to deliver oxygen to the muscles that need it most!”

As always, take time to craft your words. Make the words your own. Get beyond go-to phrases (Take a deep breath. Breathe deep.) If it’s easier to identify descriptions that resonate with you while riding, get on your bike and challenge yourself to coach not just the next move, but that amazing, enabling energy that makes cycling possible – breath.

I’ve included a few inspiration starters to get you going.

Enjoy, stay safe and stay awesome!

Inspiration Starters

– You breathe over 20,000 times a day.

– We talk a lot about heart and lungs, but your diaphragm is the unsung hero of breath.

– Diaphragm is the main muscle used to breathe.

– Practice diaphragmatic breathing off the bike to improve your breathing on the bike.

– Remember, your diaphragm is what makes breathing happen!

– Your lungs don’t do anything without your diaphragm.

– Improve your breathing – improve your performance.

– Visual: In the beginning of the ride when introducing breath, slide your hands down your sides and say lungs, point to your heart and say heart, then just below your ribcage draw a frown and say diaphragm. Then use one of the tidbits above, i.e. This is your unsung hero. Let’s use it to its potential today.

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