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Breathe Right for Motocross - Part 1

by Clint Friesen


Breathing properly is like having a clean air filter for your body. We all know what a dirty filter can do to the performance of a bike, so what does poor breathing do to the human body? Both humans and engines use air as a main fuel source. When our bodies (or our engines) don’t have enough oxygen they both perform very poorly. On the other hand, if we clean the filter and put a turbo or a supercharger on that same engine, it performs much better. The horsepower gains can be incredible. It’s much the same concept for our muscles. Don’t believe me? Try to do your next bike ride while holding your breath, and see how far you get.

We’ve all seen the mechanics hold up the ‘breathe’ message on the pit board, but if you ask the rider what that means they’ll most likely give the same answer I hear most often, “Breathe is guess?”. What nobody to this date has been able to answer correctly for me, is what does breathing properly mean exactly? Is it fast, or slow? Deeper, or more shallow? Or could it possibly be a combination of all those things? First, let’s break it down and look at what the lungs should be doing during a race. Then in part 2 of this article, we can take a look at how to breathe properly during races, and some training options for what to do if you need to work on your lungs.


  1. To provide a continuous and adequate supply of Oxygen to the muscles.
  2. To enable the removal of Carbon Dioxide from the body.
  3. To assist in the maintenance and control of the acid-base (pH) of the muscles.
  4. To assist in the control of body temperature.
  5. To assist in core stability during exercises.

The first function is to provide the body with enough oxygen, and it’s all about supply and demand. The harder your muscles work, the more they’ll need. One word that’s become popular lately is the term ‘anaerobic’. This word is literally defined as ‘living without air’. We hear lots of coaches and trainers commonly refer to motocross as an ‘anaerobic’ sport, which would mean that we should somehow be able to race our dirt bikes around for 20-minutes plus without breathing. I think we all know that’s not the truth… Reality is that no matter what the intensity of the sport may be, we never reach a point where oxygen is not being utilized. No matter how slow or how fast the pace, oxygen is always going to be the key fuel source that allows our muscles to perform properly. Again, I challenge you to try a race without it and see how far past the first turn you’ll get.

Contrary to popular belief, lactic acid does not exist in the human body. Therefore, it is not responsible for arm pump, muscle fatigue, or that ‘burning sensation

The next two functions go hand in hand. The removal of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and balancing the pH of the muscles (aka. getting rid of the acidity that builds up). Have you ever felt your muscles burn when you’re pushing towards your limit? That burning sensation is cause by an acidic build-up of a gas called hydrogen. Just like an engine creates emissions from burning gasses like oxygen and 110 octane, our bodies also have by-products that are produced during exercise. The most critical ‘emissions’ of our body creating this energy are CO2, hydrogen ions, and lactate. (Contrary to popular belief, lactic acid does not exist in the human body. Therefore, it is not responsible for arm pump, muscle fatigue, or that ‘burning sensation’). The hydrogen ions are an acidic gas that cause our muscles to burn and fail as our bodies desperately try to produce more energy. This burning is happening as the pH of our muscles drops (causing them to become more acidic) while more hydrogen begins to build up. Just like the exhaust on a dirt bike, we use our lungs to expel the unwanted and acidic gasses (hydrogen ions and carbon dioxide) out of our bodies. If we’re not breathing correctly then those gasses build up to a point where our muscles begin to fail. Our lungs acting like an exhaust is sometimes more important than the delivery of oxygen, and at certain points during a race shifting your breathing patterns to aid in the removal of those waste products is great trick to boost endurance.

To explain the fourth point on our list, we’re also able to use breathing to control temperature much like dogs when they pant. Sweat is one way to reduce our body’s surface temperature, as our skin acts just like a radiator on your bike. We also have the option to reduce our core temperature through breathing. Most people believe our lungs are just meant to deliver oxygen, but as you’ve read there’s much more to it. Expelling the build-up of gasses and acidity, and reducing temperature are two more big ones... But there’s one last thing that most riders have never even thought about…

The last main function of our respiratory system is balance and core stability. Think about the road bike tire that has no air pressure in it… It’s flimsy like a rubber band. Once you pump it up to 100-120 psi, you have a rock hard piece of rubber that can support a 300 lb gorilla. The rubber alone is not enough to support the weight. However, the rubber with the pressure added is solid as a rock. Only in our case, the rubber is the muscles (abdominals, oblique’s, lower back muscles, etc.) and the air pressure comes from our lungs and diaphragm, not a pump. When you need a strong core, you close the glottis in the back of your throat to trap air inside your lungs, and the diaphragm pushes upwards to squeeze the lungs and create more pressure. This pressure of the lungs builds and supports the spine and abdominals from the inside. Without that internal pressure the muscles of our core have nothing to contract against, and they become weak and flimsy just like the road bike tire.

When we look at athletes from the neck down, there are 4 main components: The lungs, heart, blood, and muscles. All of these parts work together to provide energy and create power. Many of today’s athletes simply overlook the fact that their lungs may be the weak link. We assume that when our legs burn it’s because the muscles or heart are weak, when it may actually be a problem with the lungs not delivering enough oxygen to burn for fuel, not balancing pH, or controlling temperature properly. Knowing how to breathe when your mechanic gives you the signal is huge in terms of the performance of your muscles. After all, we have no control over our heart rate during a race, but we can control our breathing.

Remember our lungs have 4 main functions;

  1. Bring oxygen into the bloodstream, and remove carbon dioxide along with the other byproducts of energy production from our bodies (aka. Gas exchange)
  2. Balance muscle acidity (pH)
  3. Temperature control
  4. Core stability and strength

What we’ll cover in part 2 of this article;

  1. Training options for your Lungs
  2. How to make your lungs bigger and perform better
  3. Training suggestions
  4. Controlling your breathing during races
  5. The lungs as a weak link

About the Author: Professional trainer Clint Friesen has been in the motocross scene his entire life. He grew up racing and riding and eventually ended up studying sports medicine and exercise science at Florida State University. Clint specializes in using Near Infrared Spectroscopy and is a part of the MOXY Monitor development team. Clint helps guide many NFL, NBA, Olympic, and Division 1 Collegiate programs in testing and training their athletes. He also works closely with Per Lundstam and the RedBull High Performance Department. Owning and operating his own lab out of Destin Florida, Clint has remained close to the sport and continues to work with riders like Joey Savatgy. Over the last decade he’s trained many athletes including; Gavin Faith, Jordon Smith, Anthony Rodriguez, Paul Coates, Dakota Alix, Justin Barcia, Keith Tucker, Martin Davalos, and dozens more. Any questions or positive comments can be directed my email:

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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    Tim August 08, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    Thank you for that article, it was an eye opener for me. I am an endurance rider I come from an off road back ground. I use the moto track to train for endurance by staying on the track and riding for 1 hour riding between 75 & 100%. I find myself getting into a breathing pattern or better word rhythm, much the same way I ride the track by finding good lines getting into a good pace. When I get to about the 30 min mark I am very much focused on my physical limits and start looking for that breathing rhythm I mentioned. Breathe in thru nose exhale thru mouth, over and over as deep as I can when I can. I keep talking to myself in thru nose out thru mouth. This has helped me get thru the next 30 minutes so much so that I have gone past the hour mark several times this year and ran my bike out of gas. I fill up EVERY time before I go out, it's a off road mentality. Until I read your article, I thought this routine of mine was just mental way of getting me to my goal. I am now going to pay closer attention to my breathing and use my routine when I go out and try to go full 100% for 20 minutes and see if my overall time improves. I am looking forward to PART 2!

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