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Mountaineering Training | Moving Air: Breathing For Performance

To prepare for your next climb, you have spent hours upon hours training your muscular strength, your muscular endurance, and your cardiovascular fitness. How about your breathing? Your respiratory system gets benefit from all of your other training and doesn’t need specific focus, right? Studies of endurance athletes and performance indicate exactly the opposite! Your diaphragm is a group of muscles that do the work of inflating your lungs, bringing in oxygen and removing carbon dioxide, and just like any other muscle group in your body, they can be trained and toned to work more efficiently. Belly Breathing The key to more efficient breathing for performance is belly breathing. There is far more volume within the lower portions of the lungs (the belly) than there is in the upper portions (located in the chest), yet most people primarily use their chest to breath. When an athlete breathes mainly in their chest, they take in less oxygen with each breath, but as importantly, they also remove less carbon dioxide from their system. Carbon dioxide dissolves in the blood, and causes the pH of the blood to drop (acidification). Acidification of the blood is a major cause of muscle fatigue, thus removing carbon dioxide from your system is just as important as taking in oxygen to fuel your muscles. By belly breathing, more of the lungs’ volume is utilized both to take in oxygen, and to remove carbon dioxide, and an athlete’s performance increases to match. One study done by at the University of Arizona had 20 road cyclists do computer controlled deep breathing exercises for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 4 weeks, to develop their diaphragm and intercostal muscles. At the end of the period, they did a simulated 40 km race. The control groups all showed no improvement in performance, while the test group road 5% faster. Imagine if your next climb felt 5% easier! Practice To train yourself to belly breath during exercise, start by doing some simple belly breathing practice while at rest. Try lying down and placing your hands, one on top of the other, on your stomach, just above your belly button. Inhale, trying to push your hands as high towards the ceiling as you can. Hold for a moment, then exhale fully, feeling your hands sink as far to the floor as you can. Feel as though your belly button is moving towards your spine, but don’t push with your hands; let the muscles of your diaphragm do the work. Inhale again pushing your hands as high as you can once more, and continue to repeat the process. With practice, this type of breathing will become more natural, and will begin to move into your exercise as well. You can practice the technique the next time you are sitting at your desk, or while sitting in the car on your next commute as well. With practice and training, the muscles of your lungs will tone just like the muscles in your legs and core do! The Pressure Breath If you are not familiar with the pressure breath, it is one of the most important efficiency techniques that we teach new climbers. Pressure breathing is a technique nearly all mountaineers use on high altitude mountains around the world, and is really just a derivative of the belly breath. Inhaling as fully as possible, the climber exhales with force, generally pursing their lips slightly so as to create a smaller aperture, as if they were trying to blow out a series of birthday candles. Essentially belly breathing with a forceful exhale, the pressure breath helps to improve gas exchange across the alveoli by increasing the pressure in the lungs. The pressure breath helps to combat the effects caused by decreasing atmospheric pressure as climbers gain altitude. The pressure breath is one of the most important techniques for climbing at altitude efficiently, but it requires a lot of work from the muscles of your lungs. By beginning to tone and train those muscles now, you will be better prepared to pressure breath your way up your next climb in style! Check out these few articles from the running and cycling world for more information and techniques to develop your belly breathing: Chris Burnham of Burnham coaching, Breathing for endurance athletes. And lastly, Endurance Training: surviving the tour. Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!

Comments (13)

I first learned pressure breathing when I took “How to Climb Mt. Rainier” from Pierce College in 1982. The instructors, Jeff Sharp and Ron Servine, attributed this technique correctly to the Whittakers when they taught it.
From then on I used it myself, subsequently taught it myself to my own students there, and always found it to be a great help. As we would say, ‘If your legs hurt , pressure breathe’. I still use it to this day in my continuing fitness activities. Thanks for the article!

Posted by: Pete on

Thanks for wonderful content. I got informative blog. Keep sharing.

Posted by: divorcio sin culpa nueva jersey on


While we haven’t read the book that this comes from, we urge caution with anything that claims to be a magic bullet to health, weight loss, performance, etc. From what I can tell in my research, there is some evidence that the author’s techniques are helpful for increasing some CO2 tolerance. This can have benefits for people such as divers, who are restricted in their ability to expel CO2. It doesn’t really apply to us in the mountains.

As far as breathing through the nose, this is something that is suggested by Uphill Athlete as a test to determine your Aerobic Threshold—the level of effort that you can exert while maintaining aerobic metabolism. Aerobic effort is where we spend a lot of our time training as well as climbing, as it’s the level that lets you for for very long periods of time (endurance). While Uphill Athlete recommends it as a test for that level, it correlates best for already well trained athletes, and they don’t suggest nose breathing all the time, more as an indicator.

All of that being said, once we are climbing and dealing with the altitude and reduced air pressure and oxygen uptake, pressure breathing is the proven technique with measurable results.

We hope this helps!

Posted by: RMI Team on


I’ve been using pressure breathing since I climbed Rainier with RMI many years ago.

Question:  what are your thoughts re: pressure breathing with all of the current information about breathing in the opposite manner (ie Oxygen Advantage, nose breathing 100% + relative shallow breathing, even in those who are involved in high exertion activity)

Thanks in advance for the info, Harry

Posted by: Harry on

Thanks RMI team, for your advice on breathing through the mouth vs. the nose. Very much appreciated.

Posted by: dremmonger on

Dreammonger -

Great question. In general, we would recommend breathing through the mouth, or mouth and nose. The goal is the easiest route in and out for air, so that you can turn over as much oxygen as possible. Breathing through the nose is a restriction, that most, especially at altitude, will leave them gasping for air. You bring up a great point with the cold, dry air however. It is definitely worth trying to keep a buff or thin neck warmer over your mouth to help warm the air as it comes in where you can, especially if you feel your lungs getting irritated.


-The RMI Team

Posted by: petevandeventer on

Thanks for the article. Do you have any advice on breathing through the mouth vs. the nose? I am especially asking this in the context of Aconcagua where it is very dry and cold and whether there are any benefits of breathing through the nose in order to prevent dry air from impacting the throat which could lead to a coughing.

Posted by: dreammonger on

Good to hear about pressure breath in a high altitude context - in yoga, well actually pranayama, thats similar to kapal bhati or breath of fire.

Posted by: Amartya Saha on

Thanks for the grammar check Nick!

Posted by: RMI Expeditions on

“while the test group road 5% faster”

should be “rode”—I realize that they rode on a road, probably.

Posted by: Nick on

I can confirm this really does work. While climbing Aconcagua in Feb 2018 I used this technique whenever I felt totally beat and out of breath in the 6000+m range.  Two or three forceful belly breaths and I felt keen to go on again.

Posted by: Andrew on

Great information .Thanks

Posted by: Pat Dunne on

Thanks for the article. There is a broken link for the Runners World article titled “Lung Power”. Please update it if you have an archive. It might be good to save the entire web page for links and then link to the saved web page if that is feasible or possible to do.


Posted by: zulurider3 on

Leave a comment for the team

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