What Happens to Your Lungs When You Ride

Your airbags help get the oxygen you need to where you need it, when you need it most. Here’s how they work.

July 29, 2016

cyclist lungs
MD Delwar Hossain

There’s a reason fitness is measured in terms of VO2 max, the highest rate of oxygen your body can consume during maximal or exhaustive exercise: To perform physical activity like riding a bike, especially if you want to go far and/or fast, your body needs to consume a lot of oxygen. The more oxygen you can circulate to burn fat and keep your aerobic energy production churning, the longer and faster you can ride without fatiguing. 

“VO2 is a function of how efficiently you breathe,” says Paul W. Davenport, PhD, distinguished professor in the Department of Physiological Sciences at the University of Florida, who specializes in the study of the respiratory response to exercise. Which, of course, is where the lungs come in. Here’s how they work.

hot air balloon inflation lungs on a bike ride
1/7 mnchilemom via Flickr

​Your lungs inflate

Your lungs are like fleshy hydration-pack bladders that inflate when you breathe into them. Their primary job is drawing in oxygen-rich air and expelling carbon-dioxide waste generated by your cells. That gas-exchange happens in the alveoli—microscopic, grape-like sacs that line your lungs.

As you start to pedal, you pull air into your lungs and alveoli and they expand like a tire being pumped. Oxygen-depleted blood passes into the lungs, dumping off its carbon dioxide in exchange for fresh oxygen, and then goes back into the heart to be pumped into your muscles.

pigeon lungs puffed up
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You use more lung space

As you ride, especially when you go harder—like hammering a paceline or climbing a hill—your muscles’ energy-producing mitochondria need more oxygen, so you have to extract more from the lungs. Your heart rate goes up and your stroke volume increases so there’s more blood pouring through the lungs. You not only breathe faster, but also breathe more deeply to expand and enlarge your alveoli, so you have greater oxygen exchange with every breath.


cyclist abs
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​Your abs spring into action

Drawing deeper breaths expands and enlarges your alveoli, but there’s a price to pay, says Davenport. “It’s more work and uses more of your body’s energy,” comparable to pumping up a tire: It’s fairly easy to inflate your bike tires to the lower end of their recommended psi range, but as you approach the upper limits, it takes more force to pump in each pound.

To assist, your body recruits your expiratory muscles—primarily your abdominals—to blow out more air faster, so you can get more in faster.

“Normally, you sit at a baseline midpoint, where you still have some air in your lungs—your expiratory reserve—when you exhale,” says Davenport. “When you’re exercising, you use part of that expiratory reserve and blow out more than you would at rest.”

diaphragm muscle
4/7 Shutterstock

​Your diaphragm pulls in more air

After you actively exhale using part of your expiratory reserves, your lungs are small and deflated like shrunken balloons, leaving you more space to fill with the oxygen-rich air your working muscles demand. That task is performed by your inspiratory muscles, which are your intercostals (the muscles between your ribs) and your diaphragm, a thin parachute-shaped muscle at the base of your lungs. 


vacuum cleaning
5/7 Shutterstock

​You inhale more gunk

As your oxygen demands increase, you need to switch the input from the two small holes in your face that can only expand so far to the one that can gape wide-open for maximum oxygen intake.

Problem is, as you switch from nose- to mouth-breathing, you lose your filtering system.

“Your nose filters, warms and humidifies the air,” says Davenport. Lacking the same fine-hair filtration system as your nose, your mouth lets in considerably more microscopic material that would normally be filtered out. That’s why some off-road riders will pull a Buff or bandana over their mouths during particularly dusty parts of the ride.

leaf blower
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You push out more gunk

You know that “racer cough” you sometimes develop after hard efforts? Barring exercise-induced asthma, it’s likely just your lungs clearing themselves.

“When you’re blowing out air faster, you can blow some things out of your airway that would typically come out more slowly at rest,” says Davenport. When gunk reaches your trachea, it triggers a cough to expel it. Naturally, if you’ve been sucking in more debris than usual from taking deep breaths through your mouth, you’ll have more debris (and built-up mucous that surrounds it) to expel. 

blowing out birthday candles
7/7 Michael Bentley via Flickr

​Your respiratory muscles get stronger

All that hard work makes your respiratory muscles stronger than they would be if you didn’t ride or exercise. In one study published in Respiratory Physiology and Neurobiology, researchers found that 12 weeks of high-intensity interval training could make small but significant improvements in the abdominal expiratory muscles as well as the diaphragm. 

For more measureable improvements, you can target these muscles with specific training, says Davenport. Devices like the PowerLung create resistance for both your inspiratory and expiratory muscles to make them stronger. In a review of respiratory training studies published in Sports Medicine, researchers from Switzerland found that respiratory muscle training improved endurance performance in tests to exhaustion, with those who were less fit to begin with and those who participate in ultra-endurance events.



5 New Ways to Minimize Muscle Soreness

Try these fresh techniques to make gains without the pain
October 24, 2016
woman rubbing sore legs

We've all had that moment when we try to get out of bed after a tough workout— and can't. While you’re bound to feel a little muscle soreness after pushing your limits, especially if it’s an activity you don’t typically do (read: day after new CrossFit class…), hard workouts don’t have to leave you hurting for days. By taking a few steps to minimize inflammation and speed muscle repair, you can feel good again in no time flat. Along with the tried and true post-workout massage (and maybe a dip in a cool pool), here are five fresh ways to keep sore muscles at bay.


Watermelon Juice
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Get Juiced

Watermelon juice is the new ibuprofen. The juice of this popular picnic treat is not only delicious and hydrating, but also brimming with the amino acid L-citrulline, which stimulates blood flow so your muscles get more nutrients and oxygen and can repair faster. In a study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, researchers found that men who drank about a pint of watermelon juice before a hard indoor cycling session reported significantly less muscle soreness the following day than they did when they were given a pink-colored placebo drink before the same workout.

Not so into watermelon? Pour some tart cherry juice instead. Tart cherries reduce uric acid levels and act as an anti-inflammatory. Research on endurance runners found that runners who drank tart cherry juice twice a day had far less post-race muscle pain following a strenuous event than those drinking a ruby-colored placebo drink.

electrical stimulation therapy
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Try Passive Stimulation

You need blood flow to expedite muscle recovery, which is why super-chill recovery rides make you feel better. But you can’t spin your legs 24/7, and it’s easy to overdo it on a recovery ride, which will just add to your fatigue. That’s why sports medicine guru Nicholas DiNubile, MD, author of Framework, has his athletes use an electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) machine like the Marc Pro. Just place the electrodes on your legs and turn up the dials. The currents stimulate your muscles to contract, which pumps out waste and brings in oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to facilitate muscle recovery and capillary development.

“You can do this immediately off the bike, and it facilitates recovery without adding fatigue,” says DiNubile. These machines are commonly found in physical therapy offices—or you can invest in your own for about $650.

healthy fats
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Refuel with Healthy Fats
Hard training causes muscle stress and damage, which increases inflammation and leads to soreness. Healthy fats (like the omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish, nuts, and seeds) fight inflammation, so including these foods in your recovery meals may help stop (or at least minimize) muscle pain before it happens. The USDA recommends eating at least 8 ounces of seafood a week, so following this advice will also help you get the omega-3s you need for general health and to reduce your risk of heart disease.
chia seed pudding
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Pump up Your Protein

You already know that you need ample amounts of protein: About 25 percent of your daily calories (or about 20 to 30 grams with each meal or snack) should come from this muscle-building macronutrient. Research shows that timing your protein with your hard workouts, specifically including a little protein during your workout, also can help promote muscle repair and minimize muscle soreness.

In one study, cyclists who took carbohydrate/protein gels during time trials not only rode longer during the test itself, but also had lower levels of post-exercise creatine kinease (CK), a marker of muscle damage, after they were done. Less muscle damage means less soreness and faster recovery. Try chia during your workout, or a smoothie with this tasty whey protein afterwards. 

feet on mossy ground
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Get Grounded

Those barefoot runners might be onto something that has nothing to do with improving their form (though that may happen, too). It turns out that direct contact with the earth can help the body fight free-radical damage, heal more quickly, and minimize delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Stick with us here—the surface of the Earth has a negative electric charge that balances out a buildup of excess positive charge, and offers free electrons to help neutralize rogue free radicals. Until recently, we had regular contact with the Earth through gardening, walking barefoot, and spending more time outdoors. Today, many of us have lost that contact, which may be to our detriment.

Sounds new-age-y, we know. But it's hard to argue with how good it feels to spend time outside, whether it is in the form of a beach vacation or a few days camping out. There are also scientific studies showing that grounding really works for lowering stress, improving sleep, and minimizing exercise-induced muscle pain. In a series of studies, researchers found that exercisers who spent time grounding themselves with special conductive grounding patches after strenuous exercise sessions had fewer markers of muscle damage and lower levels of DOMS pain than those receiving fake grounding treatments.

“Of course it is best to be outdoors barefoot or bathing in the ocean or a lake,” says grounding researcher Gaetan Chevalier, PhD, director of the Earthing Institute. “However, this is not always possible, so there are products [like Earthing bands, sheets, and mats] to help you be grounded when it is not possible to get outdoors, like the winter or when you’re too busy. Personally, I like to sleep grounded because we have to sleep anyway and it gives you 6 to 8 hours of grounding without any special effort.”


8 Things About Cycling That Get Better With Age

Many of your best days are still ahead of you, no matter how old you are—here's why

An older cyclist.
Cycling is indeed different as you get older: it gets a lot better. Shutterstock

Sports often reward the young. So much so that when pros start pushing the upper edges of their 30s (and certainly when still competing into their 40s), it’s not just noteworthy, but downright newsworthy. Well, not only are the Kristin Armstrongs (third time consecutive Olympic gold medalist at age 43) of the world proving that if you work hard you’ve got decades worth of ass-kicking capability, but also experience shows us that there are so many other, less-heralded (but just as rewarding) advantages to being an older athlete that make every ride richer, no matter how many years you’ve been rolling along. Here are our favorites.

Cyclists in the fall.
1/8 Rachel Samanyi via Flickr
You really appreciate the ride

As time passes, you become more aware of the passing of time and thus time, especially on a bike, becomes more precious. You begin to really appreciate the sound of your tires on the road, the view of blue skies and puffy clouds, and being one with your ride and your surroundings.     

A cyclist changing a tire tube.
2/8 Brampton Cyclist via Flickr

Minor mishaps are no big deal

Flat tires, broken chains, sliced sidewalls, oh my! Meh. At this point, you’ve seen nearly every type of mechanical; got caught out in the pouring rain (and probably hail), ran out of food and bonked your brains out, drained your bottles with no refills in sight for at least another hour, and so forth. You know how to assess the situation, regroup, and roll with it. (Looking to get the most out of your rides?

Cyclists in a group.
3/8 Parker Knight via Flickr

You've built a really big community

The longer you ride, the more riders you meet. Annual charity rides, centuries, and races start to resemble family reunions as your cycling circle expands. By the time you hit your 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond, you’ve amassed a community of riding friends and acquaintances that may span multiple states, if not countries.   

An older and younger cyclist.
4/8 Gustavo Devito via Flickr

Not every ride needs to be a race

Though a little decline in power and speed is inevitable over time, you can still go plenty hard no matter your age. The difference now is you know you don’t always need to go hard, and you appreciate the importance of rest and recovery for staying strong.

A muddy cyclist.
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You've got some serious mileage in your legs

Muscle memory is a marvelous thing. As a seasoned cyclist, you can pretty much saddle up and ride for a few hours without much ado because at this point in your riding, you’re extremely efficient and experienced.

Two cyclists in colder weather.
6/8 Jaan via Flickr

Layering is a breeze

Fifty-two degrees and slightly overcast? You know the exact arm warmer/base layer/jersey/glove combo to keep you cozy in those conditions—and pretty much all others.


A steel frame bike.
7/8 Phil Gradwell via Flickr

You know what you like

You’ve tried every bar width, wheel size, frame material, saddle width, pedal-cleat combination, and set-up to know what works for you. That’s not to say you’re closed-minded to new innovation; you just know what you like. You’re also not going to hop on the “next big thing” without a critical eye.

Older cyclists.
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You defy expectations

Cycling keeps you young, right down to your DNA—that’s a scientifically proven fact. Endurance-trained folks like cyclists have longer telomeres—the protective end caps on your DNA strands, the length of which are directly related to longevity—than their sedentary peers. In fact, they have telomeres that aren’t all that much shorter than their younger endurance-trained peers. That’s why people do a double take when you tell them your age…and that never gets old.


The Ideal Resting Period for Cyclists

To come back stronger than ever next season, you need to make sure you're resting right

October 19, 2016
A cyclist resting on a bench.
If you don't rest properly in the off season, you might be setting yourself up for an energy crash. Shutterstock

All athletes need an off-season to recover from the physical and mental stress that training and racing imparts on the body. Even if you aren't training hard, a lack of any form of break will almost always lead to staleness and reduced performance.

There's much debate about what constitutes an optimal rest period, and what one should and shouldn't do in the off-season. In the past, many top pros would stop training altogether, for up to a few months. This resulted in some of them gaining a lot of weight and then struggling to lose that weight in the first half of the European season.

Weight gain is only one side effect of adopting a totally sedentary lifestyle in the off-season; an additional aspect is the loss of many of the training adaptations gained during the previous year. Still, a short period of inactivity—two to three weeks of rest—won't reverse the chronic adaptive changes you worked so hard for.

However, two to three months of inactivity can result in an almost complete reversal of training gains. With an excessively long period of inactivity, riders will be unlikely to deliver better performances, as they'll effectively be starting training again from scratch. In contrast, building on the previous season's gains can result in a progressive improvement over a period of five to eight years, and an eventual peak of performance that would not otherwise have been possible. (We term this a "chronic training adaptation.")

What constitutes an optimal off-season?
The general consensus at this time is that a few weeks of active rest are sufficient to allow psychological and physical recovery from the stresses of the previous season. By "active rest," we mean lower-intensity activities that differ to those that you'd do during the season. These could include hiking, swimming, surfing, rock climbing and other fun activities. If you participate primarily in road racing, then some relaxed mountain bike riding can also be included, or vice versa.

The exact duration of the rest period should be determined by how long and strenuous your previous season was. However, a few weeks should suffice; and in general, when you feel energized and enthusiastic once more about the coming season, then you're probably ready to start training again.

This will then take you into the pre-season conditioning period. In the past, this has largely meant low-intensity training, combined with strength and stability work in the gym. A new approach now gaining acceptance is the incorporation of intermittent high-intensity training in the pre-season. Recent research has demonstrated that this is effective in maintaining many performance adaptations that would otherwise be lost if you waited until later in the season before doing high-intensity interval training again.

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Bicycling South Africa.


5 Max Heartrate Training Myths, Busted

Think you know everything about max heart rate and why it’s important? Think again.

August 12, 2016
max heart rate
Cyclists show off their heart rate straps during the 2016 Tour de France. Tim de Waele via Getty

For decades, athletes have used maximum heart rate as a way to figure out which zones they should be training in. The most common wisdom was to subtract your age from 220, and—voilà!—you had your max HR, a figure representing the greatest number of beats per minute your heart can achieve. Then, from that number, you could allegedly calculate your recovery, fat-burning, lactate threshold, and anaerobic heart-rate training zones.

However, it’s a rudimentary system—like, 'might as well use an abacus as a bike computer' rudimentary.

“It’s been the standard for years but there are a lot of variables” that can throw off your max HR, says Cherie Miner, MD, a sports medicine physician and age-group Ironman athlete at Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center. She adds that how fit you are, how hot it is, and how much stress you’re under can all affect your max HR at any given time. 

Like the 220-minus-age rule, there are a lot of other myths surrounding max HR. Here, we debunk the worst of them. 

chest pains
1/6 maridav via shutterstock
If You Go Over Your Max HR, Your Heart Explodes

You’ve gotta admit, this would be equally horrifying and badass if true. Rest easy, though—it won’t happen.

“Your heart gets to the point where it can’t eject blood effectively enough; where it’s not productive anymore,” says Dean Golich, head performance physiologist for Carmichael Training Systems. When this happens, self-preservation kicks in and you slow down. If you're in a race, that means you'll either just get dropped or toss your cookies. 

“Most people have 1 to 2 minutes max at their max HR; highly trained athletes may have more,” says Miner. Expect to see your performance suffer very quickly if you try and maintain your max HR for more than just a short burst. 

heart rate age
2/6 adam gregor via shutterstock

Your Max HR Is the Same For Everyone Your Age

That’s what the old-school formulas assume, but Golich says it’s much more nuanced than that. Max HR is largely untrainable, and determined by genetics—some of us have hearts tuned like humming birds' while others have the slow ‘n steady type.

“But it’s not an indication of performance," Golich says. "If your max is 200 and someone else’s is 190, it doesn’t mean one of you is the better athlete." In fact, he’s worked with numerous talented athletes at both ends of the spectrum. 

It's good to remember that everyone’s max HR does drop as they age—but again, that doesn’t mean you’re losing fitness. Regular training and good nutrition will affect performance more than the fact that your max HR is now slightly lower than it was three years ago. In reality, it’s not your max HR that determines your fitness level: Being able to hold your max HR for longer and longer sessions is what’s key.

bike race
3/6 paul higley via shutterstock
Heart Rate Is A Measurement Of How Hard You’re Working

Heart rate is a reaction to work being done, not a measurement of actual work. For example, Golich says that if you ratchet yourself up to 200 watts for three minutes, for the first minute, your heart may tick along at 170bpm; by minute two it may be at 180; and by minute three you could be pushing 189. But you’re doing the same amount of work the whole time—200 watts.

If you were to ride for three minutes with the intention of maintaining the same heart rate, things would look different. Say you ramped up to 180bpm to start— you might ride at 200 watts for the first minute, but you’d likely have to drop your watts to sustain that heart rate for minutes two and three.

Golich himself prefers to have his clients train with power meters or using Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)—simply, a personal appraisal of how hard you feel you’re working—rather than HR.

“There are a lot of grey areas,” with heart rate, he says, adding that being overheated, under-fueled, or even just hopped up on caffeine will throw your heart rate numbers off for the day. 

Furthermore, the number displayed by your heart rate monitor or the screen on a gym treadmill may not be accurate. Sure, using a computer is certainly more accurate than the 220-age formula, but Golich adds says that since these devices take measurements every few seconds, they're probably not dead-on. If you really want to know your true max heart rate, an EKG is the best way to go, though Golich believes it’s not an expense worth taking on.

heart rate monitor
4/6 sensay via shutterstock
If I’m Not Working at My Max Heart Rate, I’m Not Working Hard Enough

Here’s your license to chill. Max heart-rate workouts should be done sparingly, says Miner, since the ultra-high intensity can lead to injuries, extreme fatigue, and other symptoms of overtraining. Plus, there’s merit to working in many different heart-rate zones—from increasing your base fitness with low-intensity sessions to pushing the boundaries at your lactate threshold, and even tipping into some anaerobic work.

If you only have two speeds—hard and OMG hard—you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Bike ride
5/6 simone mescolini via shutterstock
As Long as You’re Working Under Your Max, You Don’t Have to Worry About a Cardiac Incident

Not true. Heart attacks, while rare, happen to athletes at all different workloads. Even so, cardiologist James Beckerman, MD, says you’re slightly more at risk when working at very high intensities. 

“This is likely related to a combination of high heart rate; higher blood pressure with exercise, which is normal; and higher levels of catecholamine [a hormone produced by the adrenal gland]," he says. "For people without heart disease, exercising at higher intensity is generally safe."

If your'e someone with heart disease or who's exhibited risk factors, however, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor about safe heart-rate ranges for exercise and even get a stress test, he says.     

6/6 nejron photo via shutterstock

Your max heart rate is the same for all sports.

You're not paranoid: Your max for cycling really may be different than your max for swimming. Again, this is indicative of how variable heart rate is, says Golich. Things that are load bearing—like running—will generally push your heart rate higher, since you have to do more work to overcome gravity. Cycling, because it has the mechanical assist of bike wheels, will generally produce a lower max heart rate. And swimming, which happens in a pool with zero-impact, may be lower still: Since the water is keeping you cool, Golich says, heat will be less of a factor in raising your HR. 


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