Education Series: Easy Ways to Improve Your Breathing in Cycling, Running, Rowing & Swimming

In this edition of the VO2 Master Education Series, performance coach Sean Seale talks with Dr. Andrew Sellars, Co-Founder of VO2 Master, about improving and optimizing your breathing patterns in cycling, running, rowing and swimming.
Read through the full details of their conversation below.

Sean Seale: How can we optimize our breathing during cycling?

Dr. Sellars: I’ll caveat this by saying there’s not a ton of research into this yet. We’re hoping that VO2 Master and other devices like ours will help contribute to a better understanding of efficiencies in breathing patterns.

But what we do know is that there are better efficiencies with maximizing tidal volumes at the beginning. And then coordinating better respiratory frequencies based on those larger tidal volumes.

Because cycling is a cyclic sport, there is some indication that there are benefits of coordinating breathing with the cycling motion. Typically, we’ll see respiratory frequencies in that 20-30 range of respiratory frequency with maximal tidal volumes with an efficient breathing pattern.

Once you get higher than 30-40 breaths/minute, people are really starting to use an incredible amount of energy to be able to coordinate that respiratory frequency. Those people are getting up to levels that are above their threshold or above some sort of functional threshold power. It’s time-limited to how long they can sustain that kind of respiratory pattern for a number of reasons; whether it’s a metabolic component or whether there’s a muscular component to that or a cardiac component.

Most efficient respiratory patterns have lower respiratory frequencies and higher tidal volumes. Depending on your focused training, those can be adapted quite significantly or changed quite dramatically with different respiratory interventions and training patterns.  

How about running?  

Running is interesting because there’s some really good research that shows how most people default to a respiratory pattern that matches their cadence.

Typically when people are jogging at a low intensity, they will almost always default to a 4 and 4 breathing pattern, meaning they inhale for four steps, then they exhale for four steps. And they will keep repeating that as long as they’re keeping a relatively low intensity.

As soon as they start moving towards moderate or a threshold, they’ll bump that respiratory frequency up. So, they’ll hold that slower respiratory frequency of 20-25 breaths/minute for a number of steps. Even in a step test, it increases intensity every 3-4 minutes, until they get to a level where they need to blow off more CO2 and will dramatically increase their respiratory frequency.

That’s almost always connected to their running stride. They’ll jump to a 3 and 3 pattern or sometimes they’ll skip that and go straight to a 2 and 2 pattern. And if you think about what those numbers mean; people that are recreational runners with a cadence of 80-90 steps/minute, that’s a breathing frequency of 40-45 breaths/minute. Which is fast and not that easy to coordinate.

If you’re looking at high-performance runners that are running at a higher cadence of 90-96 steps/minute, those people are at 45-48 breaths/minute at that high-intensity running speed.

Most people are limited in how fast they can breathe; they don’t have the coordination to run well, run fast and breathe fast. So, they lose coordination and they start panting—they don’t start actually having rhythmic breathing patterns above 50 breaths/minute.

You can train it and you can become much better at it. I would argue that some of our world-class runners have learned how to breathe fast and deep if they need to go to that very fast breathing pattern. That allows them to sustain speed towards the end of a very high-intensity run. Thinking about those who are doing any sort of endurance sprints, 400m, 800m or 1500m, where they’re breathing maximally and trying to maximize a cadence at the same time.

When I used to run a lot, someone told me to take two inhales for one exhale. Is that something that can have a negative effect? 

That’s interesting because a lot of advice comes from understanding how you breathe and then learning how to control it. 

Those are two big steps that we take when we are doing respiratory training. And why the VO2 Master is so great because you can actually see how the person is breathing. You can see the respiratory frequency, you can see the tidal volume and you can see whether that works.

That timing of the breathing of 2 in, 1 out for some people increases the volume of air they get in and helps them focus on fast blowing out. When you did that, it probably improved your efficiency of breathing, rather than breathing asymmetrically, uncontrolled or not having a pattern.

We know that patterned breathing is more efficient than unpatterned breathing; when you have some breaths that are not controlled and therefore actually don’t move any air in the right direction. Then you’re forced to take your next step and your next breath needs to be even deeper. And then you’re forced to use different muscles and accessory muscles to take the next deep breath because you missed one of your breaths.

That dysrhythmic breathing pattern is an indication that people have gone beyond their threshold or the balance point of their control. We know that that is an unsustainable breathing pattern. They’re either going to have to slow down or stop or find a new breathing pattern to be able to sustain that new level. We see that all the time.

If you can teach people to breathe more efficiently, they’ll be able to sustain those high-intensity running paces much longer. For some people, it actually drops below their threshold and they’re able to keep running for a sustained period of time. Just weeks earlier, they weren’t able to do that just because their breathing patterns were holding them back.

How can you better coordinate your breathing during a rowing stroke? 

Rowing is interesting because the cyclical nature and the range of speeds are right in the most efficient range for breathing.

You and I were talking about the potential that maybe one of the reasons that we use long oars maximized for that 30-40 stroke rate is because that is the best way to get the most amount of energy out. In the most efficient breathing pattern too. If you’re using much shorter oars, their respiratory frequency would need to be significantly faster to keep up with the stroke rate because everybody’s going to breathe a single breath for every stroke.

We’ll talk about different patterns of breathing and maybe some evidence that there are other potential ways of intervening with breathing patterns for rowing in future podcasts. But you’re totally right to maximize for most rowers; they’ll take that deep breath on the recovery phase, so they can maximally hold the tension for the most explosive part, which is the catch.

That high explosive power output has to go in through the legs and hold on in the core for the catch and develop power through that whole stroke. Most people will exhale through that full stroke and then take a breath in the next relaxation phase.

Because you’re tied very tightly to that pattern, your respiratory frequency will be dominated by the stroke rate. Whether that’s being controlled by your stroke person if you’re on a team, by your Coxon who’s setting the rhythm or you’re in a single boat and you’re actually able to control your own rhythm; that rate that you do is going to dictate your respiratory frequency.

The only way you can maximize and improve efficiency for rowers is to really look at what ranges they’re going to need and maximize the tidal volumes for that range. If you know that you’re in a sprint race and you’re going to be pushing respiratory frequencies into the 40s for the whole duration, then you want to be able to breathe as big of volumes as you can and be able to hold that pattern or even faster so that you have some buffer to be able to do it.


What does optimal breathing for swimming look like?

I grew up as a swim coach and it’s actually what got me involved and interested in breathing in the first place.

Interestingly enough for swimming, there’s a much broader range of stroke counts and stroke frequency. Because we can see so clearly how often people breathe, it’s actually very easy to count their breathing. I don’t need a special machine, I don’t need a VO2 Master to tell me how fast someone is breathing. I can just watch them swim and count them.

There’s more ability to shift breathing patterns because they don’t have to breathe every stroke, every 2 strokes or every 4 strokes. But almost all high-performance swimmers are trained to breathe both sides; we call it bilateral breathing. So with that, I’ll take one breath on the right side and one breath on the left. They’re trained like that.

But almost every world record holder at every distance is always breathing to one side, which is the dominant side and breathing every 2 strokes. At high intensities, the breathing patterns don’t change, they stay a rhythmic breathing pattern for the duration of the event. As their stroke rate increases, the respiratory frequency automatically increases as well.

We have limited data for how deep they’re actually breathing. The only available data we have is from VO2 testing underwater, which is artificial because the person is either in a swim flume or they’re tied in and they’re not breathing to the side. They actually breathe differently than they would when they’re using a snorkel vs able to breathe freely. So, we don’t know the kind of tidal volumes those athletes are using in their actual chosen sport.

We can test them on a bike and we test them on a treadmill, but there’s just no true correlation to how they’re breathing. All we really have is respiratory frequency data.

And you can see when people lose control of their respiratory pattern because they start to change their stroke to be able to move different air patterns. They’ll increase their stroke rate, they’ll take a longer time to actually take the inspiratory air in, they’ll shift their breathing rhythms and then their stroke will fall apart. As their diaphragm gets fatigued, their core stability falls apart and they start to sink through the water. These are dramatic changes that all coaches of swimming have seen, but not necessarily related to poor respiratory habits.

It’s one of these areas where respiratory training has dramatic potential for improving performance and has been picked up by a number of swimming organizations and swim teams. It’s not well known publicly because this is the kind of thing that people keep secret because it gives them an unfair advantage.

If they’re able to breathe better, they can swim better. Some of the work that we’ve been doing with VO2 Master is helping swimmers understand how they’re breathing, both during their swimming and in the recovery phase. We do VO2 testing for swimmers in the rest periods to give us some indication of how much oxygen they’re consuming when they’re swimming.

VO2 Master Analyzer

Reach your performance and fitness goals faster

Get the next level of performance and metabolic assessment in the world's most portable, user-friendly, and affordable analyzer.

Legal Disclaimers

Product is not a medical device; it is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult your physician before starting any dietary or fitness programs.

Have Questions?

Chat directly with a live agent by opening the chat window.