It's not just strong legs that make you ride better; your lungs play just as big a role. The bottom line is that if you breathe better, you can ride further and faster.
During a typical day of doing nothing but living, you breathe in 15 000 liters of air – about six to 10 litres every minute. Most of it comes through your nose, which is equipped with little filtering hairs to clean air en route to the lungs.
Hop on your bike and start hauling down the road and your air intake increases at least tenfold – twenty-fold if you like to hammer! And most of that air is getting pulled right through your mouth – sans filtering – into your lungs.
"That means you're taking in at least 10 times as many lung irritants, such as pollen and pollution," says Dr Alfred Munzer, past president of the American Lung Association.
Another possible cause of coughing among cyclists – if it happens during a ride as well as afterwards – is a condition called exercise-induced asthma. EIA is most common among cyclists who ride in cold, dusty or extremely humid environments.
"You don't have to stop exercising when you have EIA," says Munzer. "But you may need to carry an inhaler or take other precautions."
Do you have exercise-induced asthma?
About 40% of cyclists who have nasal allergies – and 15% who don't – also have exercise-induced asthma, which is characterised by coughing, wheezing and a feeling of suffocation or tight chest brought on by riding and other exertions.
Doctors diagnose EIA with a timed airflow test. If you answer yes to either of these questions, get checked out:
1. When you feel out of breath on a ride, do you cough, wheeze, and gulp for air or exhale in long, ragged breaths?
NOTE: The normal pattern for cyclists under exertion is frantic but even breathing.
2. Do you begin coughing after six minutes of hard (85% of max) riding? EIA sticks to a schedule – the decrease in airflow will peak in another six minutes (that's 12 minutes after you began riding at 85% of max), then gradually returns to normal over the next two hours.
How you can ride great despite it
Doctors can prescribe medication to soothe your air-sucking. But here are four fixes you can do without drugs:
1. Warm your inhaled air. If it's cold enough for tights and long-fingered gloves, try a mask, scarf or balaclava.
2. Ride regularly. Training three to five times a week teaches your bronchial tubes to widen and conduct more air, partially offsetting EIA.
3. Skip the bananas. Some riders are strangled by EIA only after eating certain foods – a list that, besides our favourite yellow fruit, includes shrimp, celery, peanuts, egg whites and almonds.
4. Induce EIA. If you ride through the worst six minutes of coughing, you gradually return to normal – and you won't suffer again as long as you keep riding. So some riders induce their EIA in a private warm-up before joining the group.
Five ways to breathe better
1. Belly breathe. Most cyclists overuse their rib muscles for inhaling and exhaling. Your abs can do the work more efficiently, extending your endurance by using less energy. Push your stomach out when inhaling and pull it in when exhaling. To test for proper technique: put your hand on your stomach - if your diaphragm moves, you've got it.
2. Flush carbon dioxide from your bloodstream before sprints or hard climbs. How? Take 15 deep breaths before the effort starts. Shortness of breath isn't caused by your lungs not getting enough oxygen – it's caused by too much carbon dioxide in your blood. So flush it out before the hill puts it back in.
3. Open up your riding position. Hunched shoulders reduce lung capacity and restrict your diaphragm. Your handlebar's width should at least equal that of your shoulders. And, to keep from curving your back - which also limits lung function - make sure your stem is no lower than 5cm below your saddle. Also: never climb in the drops. Even though David George does.
4. Skip rush hour. Especially the afternoon rush hour, when pollution has had a chance to accumulate all day.
5. Ride back roads or off-road. Can't avoid high-pollution times? Then get as far from it as you can. Ride less- congested back roads instead of major arteries. Or grab your mountain bike and hit the trails.
For more cycling tips head to www.bicycling.co.za or get your copy of the latest issue.