Getting enough oxygen in your body is a key factor to racing hard or riding long distances. However, it’s not the size of your lungs that counts as much as how efficient your lungs are.
Most of the time we don’t use all of our lung capacity. When we are not active, or when we are not exerting ourselves i.e you can hold a conversation while you pedal, your lungs keep a bit of oxygen in reserve. That means they don’t expand to their full size.
When you push the limits and your heart rate increases, blood is sent to your lungs to retrieve fresh air more often, dumping biggeroads of carbon monoxide as they go, your air intake and exit has to increase to keep up with demand. This is when you switch from nose breathing to mouth breathing, drawing in big gulps of air to help break down carbs and protein for energy and tap into your fat stores to find fuel for your muscles to power you forward.
When this happens your lungs let go of that reserve of air and use that space, expanding to their full size.
In order to move the air effectively your body calls up additional muscle strength to work the diaphragm harder, basically getting you abdominal muscles to do the hard work, sucking new air in and pushing old air out.
If you have ever wondered why you feel breathless or et a stitch if you suddenly do intense exercise when you are not used to it, this is the answer. You are pushing air out faster, and more forcefully than normal and using a larger muscle group to do so.
Remember too that your lungs are not just responsible for bringing oxygen in, they are also responsible for removing waste (carbon dioxide), so breathing out is just as essential as breathing in, although we don’t usually think of it that way.
When you lungs dump that reserve and go all out in times of need, that is the measured volume referenced as VO2 max. This is the most efficient oxygen intake and absorption by your body.
While your lung capacity may be pretty much fixed as an adult, how well your body copes with maximum usage, VO2, is something you can control and improve on.
When you don’t get the required oxygen amount.
If your VO2 max is not enough, and your lungs can’t get the required amount of oxygen needed to fill the blood quota your muscles can create lactate which is an energy source that doesn’t require oxygen. A potential consequence of this is lactic acid build up. If the lactic acid in your bloodstream reaches its threshold, then your body will start sending you signals to stop riding. That intense burning in your muscles, fatigue, cramps, and nausea, they are all indicators that you have had enough and it’s time to rest. When your lungs are efficient enough to supply all the oxygen needed, then you can ride harder for longer and improve your performance.
You don’t really need to know what your VO2 Max is, although there are expensive and complicated ways you can get measurements using a gas analyser, or measuring your power outage, however, even without knowing your lung efficiency maximum you can easily train to increase it.
If you are new to exercise or getting back after an illness, the way to improve your lung efficiency is to go slow. Build up your strength and endurance gradually to help train your lungs to use oxygen instead of going to lactate early on.
If you are already fit and ride regularly then interval training is the best way to help boost your lung efficiently and give you a higher VO2 Max.
Increase your lungs ability to absorb oxygen
When you are at maximum power you’re actual able to take in a huge amounts of air (about 150 litres a minute), but only part of that air is oxygen. You are also inhaling pollutants, pollens and dust. Breathing through your nose helps filter the air but when you are riding hard you will need to draw air through your mouth. Even then your lungs have the ability to screen out occasional blasts of bad air, however, if you are riding in heavytraffic or around industrial areas it can serious impede your ability to absorb oxygen if your lungs becomes inflamed and irritated due to ozone materials.
Ride on quiet roads, get out early before the pollution starts to build up or get out into the country to ride as often as you can. If you do have to ride in polluted air it’s okay to ride hard, so don’t hold back.
Do these exercises two – three times a week (never back to back).
Warm up: Ride at a steady pace for around 15 minutes.
*Sprint: Ride hard for three to five minutes.
If you are new to intervals start at three minutes, as you improve increase the duration.
*Recover: Slow down to a high steady pace (where you can still hold a conversation) for three to five minutes.
If you are new to intervals you will need a five-minute break but decrease the length of these as your interval ability improves.
Repeat: Sprint and recover a total of 5-8 times.
Cool down: End with a gentle 10-minute cool down ride.
Breath training and resistance work for your breathing muscles helps make your diaphragm stronger and also decreases that amount of oxygen your muscles steal when you exercise. To have them working hard at low cost condition your breathing muscles for strength and endurance.