Sometimes after a heavy effort I get into this compressed breathing which is very hard to break out of.

Heres what I mean with cramped breathing: Imagine breathing with the top abdominal (1st row of rectus abdominis) muscles cramped up and pressing the air our instead of "belly breathing".

If I concentrate on breathing correctly I can make it go away temporarily but when the hunger for fresh air is high I quickly get back into this bad habit.

Its not painful or anything (this may sound worse than it is, but it is definetly not a medical issue) but I feel I cannot get enough air into my lungs this way and it makes me gasp for air and my breathing gets shorter and shorter until I have to slow down.

I thought that maybe my bike position may be at fault for this but on paper everything fits.

How would you explain this and help me improve my breathing ? I have tried belly breathing but as I said, I kind of forget about it.

  • 1
    Do you smoke? Your description perfectly matches a rider who I know smokes,
    – Criggie
    Dec 6 '17 at 22:02
  • 1
    Consider that maybe your handlebar is too low. Dec 6 '17 at 23:10

I see you are aware of horizontal breathing vs vertical breathing - the former is "belly breathing" as you name it, the latter is the shallow type with shoulders vertical movement involved (hence less effective).

Perhaps this helps: on my firefighter training we've learned how to cope with hyperventilation - make sure you exhale deeply. The body will take care for inhale itself provided the lungs are properly emptied.

Good luck!


Bike fit can affect breathing mechanics if the bike fit puts you in a position that impacts diaphragmatic breathing (i.e., "belly breathing"):

Ventilation for the endurance althlete is most effectively performed through diaphragmatic breathing, in which contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm pulls and pushes air from the lungs. Secondary muscles of ventilation include the inter-costals (between the ribs), the abdominal musculature, the trapezius, the levator scapulae and the scalenes. If diaphragmatic breathing is compromised these secondary muscles can become chronically overworked leading to myofascial type pain (i.e., pain between the muscle and the muscle covering). This is often seen in the upper neck and shoulder muscles.

-Phil Burt, Bike Fit

For example, if your position is too now and short for your anatomy you may compensate in various ways, one way can be go flex your thoracic spine such that you start to affect breathing mechanics. If this goes on too long your body can start to permanently change your breathing patterns, where you start to rely on secondary muscles to breath, rather than the primary muscles. These muscles will fatigue more easily which could lead to cramping and the inability to breath under heavy efforts.

You suggested your fit was good “on paper”. I would also be careful of trusting "standardized" fits, especially fits based only on body height. Everyone's body proportions are quite different. For example, if you have relatively long legs, you will have a relative short upper body for your height. The longer inseam effectively reduces any frames stack height and while the shorter upper body makes the frame reach effectively longer. Upper to lower arm/leg proportions also vary by up to 30% in people which can further affect fit. It is easier to ride a lower stack height with longer upper arms, while longer lower arms extend the reach and requires a higher stack height in a road bike setup).

Personally, I have a long inseam and long lower arms, this requires a much taller stack and longer reach than would be expected for my height. Prior to that I often rode a position that had too low of a stack height and too short of a reach, this caused me to compensate by excessively rounding my back in the thoracic region, which started to impact my breathing mechanics slowly over time. At one point as I would inhale my diaphram would only come part way down, then lock in place followed by breathing "up" (i.e., apical breathing). I ended up getting muscle spasms in my intercostals and at the top of my rectus abdominis right near the rib cage. The solution was to raise my stack by a 1-2 inches (due to having about 2 inches longer inseam) and extending my reach by over an inch for my longer arms. This ended up straightening my back more which opened up my breathing greatly. I also had to work on gaining back thoracic flexibility and retrain my breathing mechanics. My final position did not differ much in aerodynamics because I am more stretched out.

You may wish to get assessed by a professional as you may be unwittingly compensating for less than optimal fit by impacting your breathing mechanics.


Despite what many think, efficient breathing at anaerobic threshold is not natural for humans, its a learned activity that needs training and practice. (We evolved as hunter gatherers, we were either strolling around well below anaerobic threshold, of chasing prey at maximum effort - anaerobic (or being chased...)

Taking as read the bike fit is good and there are no medical issues, its most likely a training issue. It sounds like you know whats ended, but when the going gets tough, you forget about breathing. You get into a mode where you are in oxygen deficit, but other signs of high effort are missing - e.g. the burn from lactic acid, so your not feeling like your over cooking it. Slowing down feels like a cop out...

As daft as is might sound, you should to set aside training time to practice breathing technique. Like any technique, it needs time to perfect, and more time before its automatic. Start at low effort and focus solely on breathing. Do this as a part of every training session. To start with, set aside entire training sessions where this is the main focus, then taper the amount down to a few minutes each session - Exactly same as you would do if your pedal stroke was inefficient and needed attention or you were having problems with fast down hill corners. Practice....

You could also consider activities that focus on awareness of breathing such as Yoga.

  • 2
    Actually current theory suggests our ancestors were persistence hunters slowly running our prey to exhaustion.
    – Rider_X
    Dec 7 '17 at 3:51

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