Hiking in Colorado has a couple of unique challenges. First, the landscape is steep. It’s virtually impossible to hike in the mountains without encountering steep terrain. Second, our mountains are so high that the air is considerably thinner. Exercises that target respiration efficiency will greatly improve your enjoyment when venturing outdoors.
It’s a misnomer that the air has less oxygen at high elevations. Air actually has the same percentage of oxygen at high or low elevations. The difference when you get up high is from the overall air being thinner, not lower oxygen content per unit of air. With less air to fuel your activity its important to condition your body to work as efficiently as possible.
Just like training for hiking, training for respiration efficiency is best achieved with aerobic conditioning. Start a jogging program. Go cycling. Walk fast (fast enough to tax your breathing). Go skating (with pads). The commonly accepted rule of thumb is to raise your heart rate for a minimum of 30 minutes several times per week. Applying this to improving lung power, raise your heart rate to a degree that you feel winded and maintain that elevated level so you breathe deep and “exercise” your lungs.
Additionally, there are a few specific techniques that will improve your lung power, and consequently your enjoyment while hiking in steep, high elevation terrain.
Lung Strength Training: We don’t usually think of lungs as needing strength training. Just like leg or back muscle training, high elevation hiking can also be improved with lung strength training. The best way is to breathe deep while exercising. It may seem obvious that strenuous exercise will probably result in deep breathing, and that’s good. When you exercise at any level, think about respiration efficiency and practice deep breathing. This simple change will condition the chest muscles and make things work better.
Deep Breathing Through Aerobics: In addition to exercising the musculature, deep breathing engages the air sacs down in the far depths of your lungs. Just like anything else, using something will make it more efficient. By engaging all of your lungs you will be exercising the entire organ. People who don’t exercise often will tend to become shallow breathers and only use the upper portion of their lungs. Later, when they need more oxygen, the lungs aren’t accustomed to the extra depth of breathing and respiration efficiency is poor. Breathe deep and do so often.
Become a Belly Breather: Breathing is most effectively powered by the diaphragm, which can be thought of as a muscular wall separating the chest and abdomen. Champion runners often train for belly breathing and those who breathe this way are usually the ones out front. When you’re winded, place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Chest breathers will see movement of the upper hand whereas belly breathers will see the upper hand largely still and most of the movement from the lower hand. Practice belly breathing until it becomes normal. This is the most efficient way to breathe. Using the diaphragm enables deeper breathing which conditions your lungs, leading to better respiration efficiency.
Take a Pilates Class: Pilates was originally developed after World War I to rehabilitate soldiers. Many people are surprised to learn it’s been around that long. Pilates trains your core muscles and improves overall flexibility. A strong core equals strong breath.
Two Key Exercises:
- Lie on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Place your arms at your sides with the palms down. Inhale and lift your head, neck, shoulders, and arms off the ground. Lift your knees and extend your feet so your legs are straight and at a 45-degree angle to the floor. Hold this position and take five short breaths in and five short breaths out. While breathing, move your arms up and down in unison with your breaths (take a breath and raise your arms, release the breath and lower your arms). Relax, then repeat for a total of 10 reps if you can. If needed, start with fewer reps and work up to 10 reps per session.
- Lie face down with your palms flat under your shoulders (as though you were about to do some push-ups). Face down so your neck is in alignment with your spine. Inhale and slowly lift your head, neck, shoulders, and chest as you press your hands into the ground. Keep a slight bend in your elbows. Exhale and slowly lower yourself back down. Make sure you coordinate your up and down movements so you raise your head, then neck, then shoulders, followed by lowering your chest, then neck, then head. Back discomfort can be alleviated by pulling your shoulders back to open up your chest. Do 10 reps, and like the other exercise, start at your level and work up to 10 reps as needed.