Breathing Tips for Better Mountain Bike Cardio

Core training and cardio training are two things that most people don’t think of as going together. However, they are tied together for one simple reason – both drive your breathing and stability comes from the core.

While the core has muscles specifically for breathing, sometimes things get out of whack and we “forget” how to use them. We end up using other muscles like the chest to drive our breathing. This leads a couple of critical problems on the trail.

First, chest breathing is inefficient and doesn’t use our full lung capacity. You have to use the diaphragm to draw air all the way into the lungs and the deep abdominal muscles to exhale to achieve optimal gas exchange.

Second, when you don’t use the right muscles to breathe you end up using muscles that are better used to stabilize and power movement. When given the choice between creating movement and breathing those muscles will always choose breathing, leaving you without all of your core muscles to help you on the bike.

This means that when you are training you have to focus on good breathing habits so you don’t simply ingrain bad habits. In this new video I go over some basic strategies I use to help improve a rider’s breathing and to help integrate that improved breathing into strength and cardio workouts.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Scott Bury says:

    For great breathing specific training check out You will quickly identify which of the many muscles involved in breathing aren’t working in harmony.

    Reply • May 15 at 10:51 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I saw a technique in Deadlift Dynamite where you breathe through 1 and then 2 straws, which forces you to inhale and exhale more efficiently. Seems to be a similar theory to the Power Lung, might be something people can try to get a similar effect.

      Reply • May 15 at 2:01 pm
  2. Del says:

    Really enjoyed this one….When Coach gives us a “spa day” at training for myofacial release technique we can add some breathing training too.
    Our team has 18 weeks to the Xterra triathlon, Jon Wengel from Full on Fitness is our trainer (from Nanaimo BC Canada) and so much of his conditioning plan follows exactly what you are sharing, especially kettle bells. It’s useful to me to share with the team and the coach for the Mountain bike drills as our team are a group of “a little past our prime” women how has decided to do this race.

    Reply • May 15 at 1:52 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Glad you liked this tip, be sure to practice good breathing when you train and on the trail as well and you’ll really notice the difference.

      Reply • May 15 at 2:02 pm
  3. Mike says:

    Another timely post James. I began my journey last Fall from being a chest breathing roadie on dirt, to becoming a better mountain biker. I still have so many things to get figured out, but thanks to you I know what I’m supposed to be working on. Body position, standing pedaling, seated pedaling, cornering, and manualing. I’m finding that all of these things depend on a strong core, and my core strength depends on proper breathing. It seems like it’s going to take a lifetime to master this stuff. But I’m not discouraged. I know timeless truths and foundational pillars when I see them. Working on the right things and sucking at them is a whole lot better than simply trying to ride hard with no clue — and that gives me something to feel good about. Thanks for providing such priceless information. I constantly feel indebted to you.

    Reply • May 15 at 5:49 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      That reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “If you continue in this simple practice every day, you will obtain some wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you attain it, it is nothing special.” – Shunryu Suzuki.

      Reply • May 16 at 7:28 am
  4. Dan says:

    I can remember the exact moment I became a belly breather. I had set up a running course approximately 400′ long thru the bush on our property. It ran slightly downhill in one way and had lots of things to run up and down or jump over. My goal was to run one way and then turn around and come back. On my first attempt I had only gone half way down and I was bent over gasping for air. I kept at it and then one day the most amazing thing happened. I felt my lower abdomen expand, almost like it was going to fall over my short line. I felt this great big breath of air. Up until then I was not even aware of the concept of chest breathing or of being a chest breather. Was truly amazing. Well I kept at it and in a few weeks I was able to go back and forth 5 times without stopping. So yes James it is well worth the effort to become a belly breather. Cheers

    Reply • May 17 at 10:52 pm
  5. DaveH says:

    As usual, this is all about me. I’ve been wondering why I have such difficulty keeping pace on the trail. A weak core and panic mouth breathing are working together to bring me down. I must be the poster boy for mouth breathing…I now notice I do this every time I’m under a heavy workload. It takes so much concentration to use the diaphragm. I think it’s going to work in the long run, but learning to breath again is tough.

    Reply • February 19 at 8:23 am
  6. John W says:

    Timely article James. Yesterday I asked about the difference in aerobic and anaerobic breathing on the trail, so I guess this plays in the same field.
    Coming from my normal 500′ elevation to 11,500′ elevation trail riding a few years ago I developed exercise induced asthma. Those longer climbs on the western slope had me gasping to collect any amount of air I could. An inhaler before riding works pretty well now, but I would love to know how to change my breathing, but I haven’t found nirvana as Dan above seems to have discovered.

    Reply • February 19 at 10:16 am
  7. DaveH says:

    After being turned on to this issue, I found an article with a simple test to determine you’re a mouth breather because you have weak nostrils — Take both index fingers and press them just besides your nostrils on your cheek. While firmly pressing on your cheeks, lift the cheek skin upwards and sideways, pointing towards the outer corners of your eyes. Take a deep breath in.

    This made a huge difference in my case. Here’s the article: Never imagined I’d be working on nostril strength!

    Reply • February 20 at 9:45 am
  8. Norman List says:

    HHi James,
    Been with you for several years and at 72 years old have improved my biking skills tremendously. For example i changed over to platforms and will be buying a set of yours as soon as i figure out the logistics.I live and ride some of the best trails in Costa Rica.
    I would like to contribute a little to the breathing aspect and have learned an excesise called asametrical breathing.Thay tought me in yoga that you should exhale one more count then inhaling.I use 3 inhales and 4 exhales..In order to coordinate my breathing with my peddeling, i exhale on the bootom stoke alternating from left to right foot on each count of 4 . Hope i m lear with my explanation
    Thanks for all of you valuble instructions and i hope to come to Colorado and participate in one of your training clinics next summer.
    Should you come to Costa Rica ,i owen a small lodge on lake Arenal and will give you free stay for having shared so much valuble instruction for making an old guy ride young again
    Un abrazo

    Reply • November 20 at 6:46 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback and insights into breathing drills. Glad I’ve been able to help you enjoy riding more, if I make it to PR I’ll take you up on that offer!

      Reply • November 20 at 9:05 am

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