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Hill Climbing Made Easier

The Secrets of
Deep-Cycle Breathing

By Jim Wood
Published April 22, 2005
Last update: April 23, 2005

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Trudging up steep mountainsides while carrying full packs is one of the most demanding things that we backpackers do. For many years, I've used a breathing technique that has helped to make the struggle a lot easier, and thought it might be of interest to others. I was prompted in part to document the technique because of a message posted recently by "siouxdog" on the Backpacker's Magazine forum. The subject line of the message was "Uphills still kill me!!!!!."

My reply to siouxdog, which includes a couple of other climbing tips, went about as follows (I've made a few edits for the purposes of this article):

Assuming that you're in decent physical condition to begin with, the key to hill climbing, in my opinion, is matching your speed to your aerobic capacity. And to maximize the effectiveness of your existing aerobic capacity, I'd recommend using "deep-cycle breathing" if you don't already. When most people begin to feel winded, they tend to take short, choppy breaths that don't efficiently flush the carbon dioxide from the lungs. So instead, try this:

1. As you approach the foot of a hill, start taking regular, deep breaths through your mouth, and when exhaling, push as much air out of your lungs as you comfortably can. Pursing the lips on exhale will restrict the outflow and can help keep your breathing regular. Don't wait until you're already winded to begin deep-cycle breathing; it's best to get out in front of a potential oxygen deficit. If you feel light-headed, you're probably hyperventilating, so you can back off a bit on the deep breathing. When you actually begin climbing, however, I've found that it's virtually impossible to hyperventilate, even when hiking near sea level.

2. Try to maintain this regular pattern of deep breathing as you climb and don't out-walk your aerobic capacity. You want to keep your body at an aerobic equilibrium as much as possible, matching oxygen consumption in your muscles with oxygen absorption from your lungs. You'll know you're going too fast if you start to feel kind of a "crampy" sensation in your legs, particularly in your calf muscles. That's a sign that your muscles are under-oxygenated. If that happens, slow down until your body is back in balance, even if it means using a mountaineer's "rest-step" (i.e., step, pause, step). You'll also know you're in balance if you can continue this pace for extended periods of time and don't need to make frequent rest stops.

Another subtle sign that you're getting plenty of oxygen is a hard-to-describe feeling in your body that comes from a slight shift in blood chemistry. When your blood is oxygen-rich, it tends to become a bit alkaline and can create a "tingly" feeling that some people notice, often in their finger tips (if the tingling gets too intense, you're probably on the verge of hyperventilating, though again, that's very unlikely to happen while you're climbing).

3. Be patient as you climb. The top of the mountain will be there no matter how long it takes you to arrive. It also helps some people, especially on very steep climbs, to forget about the summit and to set short-term goals such as: "I know I can make it to that stump 30 yards up the trail - I'll just concentrate on that objective for now". A big part of climbing is attitude. It also helps to remember the old mountaineering advice: "Start out slow, then slow down".

4. Once you've reached the top of the hill, continue to deep-cycle breathe for another couple of minutes to allow your body to recover. Avoid the tendency to revert to normal breathing too quickly.

5. And one final safety note: I'd strongly suggest that you NEVER eat or chew gum when hill climbing. Having food or gum in the mouth, along with all the air you're gulping, can be an excellent way to choke to death. In fact, I think this advice is equally valid any time you're in motion on the trail, whether climbing or not. 

Jim Wood. 

I might also have added that there's probably some efficiency benefit to maintaining a regular and moderate breathing cadence when climbing, much as there is when peddling a bicycle. On the other hand, when REALLY working hard, it makes sense to increase the rate of breathing as much as necessary to maximize the exchange of air in the lungs, though it's still best done with deep inhales and exhales.


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Copyright 2005 James E. Wood. All Rights Reserved.