How is the Diaphragm and Breathing Relevant to Triathlon?

I think I can say with confidence that in 2014 I was the only pro triathlete on the IRONMAN circuit with slats of cardboard taped under his aero pads. “Cardboard?” you wonder? “Under where?” you ask. Yeah, I thought it was silly too.

Why did I cut up pieces of cardboard and perform an arts and craft project on my triathlon bike? Because I was desperate to breathe.

The wheezing was something I can only describe as borderline bronchitis. My position on my old triathlon bike was such that every ride would end in a persistent nagging cough. My breathing was hindered and surely my performance was as well.

I was convinced that my diaphragm was resting in an unnatural way, or that my rib cage was in a faulty position, or both. The bike-fit guy at a local shop told me that I needed the front end raised, something that was no longer possible on that particular frame. Enter the cardboard!

Did it help? I suppose, but I definitely was less aero as a result. I needed an overhaul of my bike fit and that was the primary reason I purchased a new bike later that year (an adorable Cervelo P3).

Upon reflection and knowing what I know now, I’m not sure if getting a new bike was completely necessary (but I certainly enjoyed the excuse). Perhaps I just needed to change the way I was breathing.

But the plight did plant a seed of wonder in my head. How is the diaphragm and breathing relevant to triathlon? Specifically on the bike?

Steve Cuddy, an experienced Austin-based physical therapist who specializing in aiding triathletes and cyclists, has a very informative article, Cycling and Faulty Breathing Mechanics, on his online blog speaking to exactly this subject.

Competitive cyclists have traditionally been taught to “breathe from their diaphragm.” Quite often this is simply described as breathing from your belly, or in other words allowing it to expand maximally.

Cuddy claims that this isn’t a proper description of diaphragmatic breathing. Yes, the belly should expand on each drop of the diaphragm (which occurs with each breath), but it should be held in check so that the front and back walls of your chest expand as well. As long as your position on the bike is correct and you have decent abdominal muscle tone (I probably had neither), then you can expand both the belly and the important front and back walls of your chest together.

Cuddy asserts that expanding the front and back chest walls is key for efficiently acquiring air. Without this expansion you can easily compensate by “overusing neck and back muscles or by improperly positioning [your] pelvis and hips.”

If you only breathe from your belly, you create a bad habit. Your rib cage is designed to expand and retract with each breath. If you never breathe from your chest, not only do you lose abdominal strength, but you’re also required to use your neck and lower back or make postural alterations just to breathe normally. This is a huge detriment to your cycling posture and your overall performance.

Afraid you’re guilty of this breathing crime? Not to worry. Steve has some great exercises for cyclists with the intention to “simulate the position on the bike and demand chest wall expansion, abdominal tone, and a properly positioned pelvis.”

One such exercise is a full squat with shoes on, hands reaching forward (as seen in the Cuddy’s referenced article). Breathe normally into the back of your chest wall. You should feel it expand. Cuddy claims that this is real diaphragmatic breathing because the “diaphragm position is held in check by the roundness of the spine and the inability of the lower ribs to flare excessively.”

He advises practice in this position in order to reduce unnecessary muscular activity in the neck, back, and hips, which most triathletes and cyclists are prone to relying on.

Another more advanced exercise is essentially the same as above but with resistance bands. As depicted in Cuddy’s article, stand about a foot away from the wall, with hips resting against it. Squat and reach your arms out, putting resistance against the bands. Your back should be rounded, no hinging in your hips. Steve explains how you’ll feel it in your abs and the muscles around your shoulder blades. This will help with the expansion of the ribs.

Start with the first exercise and work up to the more advanced edition. Use it as a warm up before your next ride on the triathlon bike. You might surprise yourself with how much easier it is to breathe, not to mention the reduction in neck and back pain.

Oh, and don’t forget to do some ab work now and then. They don’t just make you look good. Turns out they’re useful too!

TRIDOT TAKEAWAY: Breathing and the proper use of your diaphragm are very relevant to your triathlon bike position. By expanding both your belly and front and back chest walls, you achieve true diaphragmatic breathing. Thus, proper expansion of the rib cage and less improper use of back and neck muscles.

TALK WITH TRIDOT: Do you have trouble breathing on the bike? Or do you find that you excessively breathe from the belly, and as a result have experienced back and neck pain? If so, let us know if this article has helped you!

JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.

Sources: Cuddy, Steve. “Cycling and Faulty Breathing Mechanics.” Steve Cuddy Physical Therapy. n.p, 25 April 2012. Web. 3 May 2016.

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