Mountaineering Training | Moving Air: Breathing For Performance

Posted by: | July 07, 2014
Categories: *Mountaineering Fitness & Training

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:

Runners World article titled Lung Power.
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!

An RMI rope team climbs the summit ridge of Denali (Zeb Blais).

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