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How to increase lung capacity for cycling

Unlock the key to prolonged, high-intensity cycling by increasing your lung capacity with interval training and specialized breathing exercises.

Oxygen is the fuel that sustains your cycling performance. As you increase the duration and intensity of your rides, your body demands more oxygen to generate energy. Your lung capacity plays a pivotal role in dictating how long and how hard you can train. Thankfully, you can optimize your aerobic power and lung capacity with the right training regimen and breathing techniques.

What is the difference between lung capacity, aerobic capacity, and VO2max?

To understand how to optimize your performance, it’s crucial to differentiate between aerobic capacity, lung capacity, and VO2max:


Aerobic system


Any exercise lasting longer than a few minutes engages your aerobic system. Oxygen is delivered to muscles via the cardiorespiratory system, where it helps to convert glycogen and blood glucose into energy. If oxygen supply falls short, your body switches to the anaerobic system, reducing sustained effort levels. 


Lung capacity


This is a subset of your aerobic capacity that quantifies how much oxygen your lungs can absorb. It involves not just inhaling oxygen but also how effectively it is transported and utilized in the body. 




Considered the gold standard, VO2max measures your maximal aerobic capacity—essentially, the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise.

Factors that influence your aerobic power

Improving your cycling performance isn’t just about breathing more air; it’s about enhancing your cardiorespiratory system.


Your fitness level depends on how strong your lungs and heart are, the breathing techniques that you use, your circulatory system health, and your blood composition. Improving your VO2max happens when your heart muscle is able to pump larger amounts of oxygenated blood to your muscles with every heartbeat and cells mitochondria can transform it into energy.


Generally, the less fit you are, the easier and faster you will see improvements in your aerobic fitness. If you’re just a beginner, you’ll likely notice improvements in about 4-6 weeks after you start training.


A 2017 study showed that VO2max is 50% defined by our genetics. Endurance athletes often hit their physiological and genetic limits, making it very hard for them to progress. Regardless of your efforts, VO2max declines by about 10% every decade after the age of 30.


Fortunately, this process is reversible. Here are 5 ways to strengthen your cardiorespiratory system for cycling:

Interval training

A 2013 study found that interval workouts improve VO2max faster than continuous aerobic exercise. Alternating short periods of high-intensity exercise with periods of rest pushes the limits of your lungs and heart muscle.


High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Sprint Interval Training (SIT) are the 2 most efficient approaches to increasing your VO2max when it comes to cycling. During HIIT training, you work out at 80-95% of your maximum heart rate, with intervals that last from a few seconds to several minutes. By contrast, SIT requires a maximal and even supramaximal effort level during shorter intervals. It makes you work out at 95-100+% of your maximum heart rate during 10-30-second sprints.


High-intensity work strengthens your lungs and heart muscle and increases blood oxygen delivery, contributing to athletic performance. A study suggests that both training protocols promote similar improvements in cardiorespiratory fitness.

Reduced Exertion HIIT

Reduced Exertion HIIT (REHIT) is the next-generation HIIT that delivers the aerobic fitness benefits of a 20-minute interval session in just 5 minutes. This training protocol was developed by scientists looking for the shortest, most efficient way to improve cardio fitness.


REHIT is based on research that has shown that 2×20-second all-out sprints are enough to significantly improve aerobic fitness.


A study that compared an 8-week REHIT and an 8-week moderate-intensity continuous training program, found a 2x greater improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness in the REHIT group (12.3%) relative to the MICT group (6.9%).


CAROL Bike is the only exercise bike that accurately replicates REHIT conditions at home thanks to its AI-personalization that tailors the bike’s resistance to your personal maximum level each time. Read more about the science behind CAROL here.

CAROL Bike is scientifically proven to deliver superior health and fitness benefits compared to regular cardio exercise in 90% less the time.

Perform slow endurance cycling

While HIIT and REHIT boost immediate capacity, steady-state low-intensity cycling builds your system’s endurance. Aim for a 20-30% increase in your usual distance when cycling your slow miles.


Endurance training allows you to better condition your body for higher-intensity workouts and increase overall training time. Long aerobic training helps to grow more red blood cells, cell mitochondria, and capillaries that improve the body’s ability to transport and utilize oxygen.


A combination of both types of training allows one to achieve the most optimal results. One study found that the most efficient protocol to increase your VO2max consisted of 10 weeks of training 6 days/week with interval and continuous training on alternate days.

Resistance workouts

Building muscle mass is crucial to improve performance during endurance training. Research published in the European Review of Aging and Physical Activity finds a direct correlation between resistance training and an increase in VO2max in young and older subjects.

Use breathing techniques

Chances are, you are not utilizing your lung power efficiently. Breathing exercises strengthen your respiratory muscles and improve lung function. You can do these exercises anywhere but it will be the most efficient to include them in your warmup routine.


Diaphragmatic breathing


Diaphragm is the primary respiratory muscle located at the base of your rib cage. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, activates this muscle allowing you to use a greater volume of lungs. To activate it, place 1 hand on your belly and 1 on your chest. Inhale through your nose, feeling how first your chest and then your abdomen fill with air. Your stomach should move out more than your chest does. Exhale slowly through pursed lips. As you exhale, first your abdomen and then your chest should lower. Start with practicing this exercise for 5 minutes.


Pursed-lips breathing


This exercise slows your respiration down and raises the level of carbon dioxide in your blood. When you retain carbon dioxide, red blood cells become more active and release oxygen better. Inhale slowly through your nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips. Your exhalation should be at least twice longer than inhalation.


Breath control


Breath control techniques make you focus on the length of your inhalations and exhalations, improving respiratory endurance and increasing O2 levels in your blood. There are different schemes: equal breath (your inhalation and exhalation should be of the same length, usually 4 seconds), box breathing (you inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, and hold for 4 seconds), and 4-7-8 breathing (you inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds.) You can experiment to find the technique that works best for you.

Breathe correctly while cycling

When you master breathing techniques off the bike, it becomes easier to make the most of your lungs during training.


Always try to keep your diaphragm engaged during cycling. Deep breathing will drive more oxygen into your blood with less effort from your lungs.


Rhythmic breathing is another way to increase your performance. You can focus on equal breath or try pedal stroke breath counting. Inhale for 3 down-strokes and exhale for 6 down-strokes. You can adjust the number of strokes to make it more suitable for your respiration rhythm.


Inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through the nose increases the oxygen supply in the circulatory system. This technique delivers more oxygen during inhalation and slows the exhalation down to retain carbon dioxide and activate the red blood cells.

Keep your cardiorespiratory system healthy

It’s important to take care of your lungs and heart outside of training.


Improve the air quality


Ensure you breathe clean air by using air purifiers and spending time outdoors.


Maintain a healthy diet


Research has found that a high-fat diet is the most efficient type of diet to increase VO2max so you may consider adding more unsaturated fats from olive oil, nuts, and avocado to your meals. Drink water throughout the day to stay well-hydrated, too.


Use supplements


Omega-3, beetroot powder, iron, and beta-alanine can help you improve your VO2max faster.


By integrating these training tips into your regimen, you’ll not only improve your cycling performance but also boost your overall health. Higher VO2max levels are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases and increased longevity. In fact, improving your VO2max by 12% is like turning your body clock back 10 years.

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