Whether you envision a relaxing day of bird-watching or an adrenaline-pumping mountain-climbing adventure, hiking is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise. But many people find that they can't enjoy the scenery because they're too busy gasping for breath as they hike uphill or climb boulders. If you're having trouble breathing while hiking, consult your doctor first and then begin practicing healthy breathing techniques.
Importance of Breathing
Everyone knows that you have to breathe to stay alive, but it's easy to forget that the rate and depth of your breaths can also affect your health and make the difference between an easy climb and a tedious one. During physical activity, your heart pumps faster to deliver oxygen and blood to your muscles. If you're not getting enough oxygen, your muscles can't work as efficiently and you might feel tired, experience muscle cramps or even get dizzy. Particularly if you're hiking at high altitudes, proper breathing can make the difference between a leisurely hike and a dangerous trek.
Exercise physiologists often debate whether nose or mouth breathing is best, and each offers benefits. Breathing in through your nose allows you to filter out bugs and other particles in the air, but is slightly less efficient than breathing through your mouth. If you have breathing problems such as allergies or asthma, breathe through your mouth and out through your nose. If you breathe through your nose, exhale through your mouth. Focus on taking slow, even, rhythmic breaths. Your respiration rate will increase as the strenuousness of your hike does. If you find that you're gasping or feel that you can't get enough oxygen, it's time to slow down. One of the simplest ways to keep a regular rhythm to your breathing is to synchronize your breathing and your steps. As you step forward with your right foot, take a deep breath in and then step forward with your left foot. Exhale when you take another step with your right foot.
Higher altitudes limit the accessibility of oxygen, and many high altitude hikers develop altitude sickness. This can lower your ability to make good decisions and think intelligently, and can cause a variety of physical symptoms. Extreme altitude sickness can be fatal if you don't get medical care. If you're planning to hike at high altitudes, make your ascent gradually to give your body time to adjust. Slow your hiking pace and focus on taking deep, slow breaths, then blowing out forcefully. This can help you expel slightly more carbon dioxide, giving you better access to oxygen,
Other Breathing Tips
Some people sit down immediately after a strenuous hike, but this can actually elevate your heart rate and make it more difficult to catch your breath. Instead, cool down by taking a slow walk, stretching or standing for a few minutes. Drinking plenty of water will also help you more effectively regulate your breathing; dehydration can cause your heart rate to increase, which can interfere with your breathing.
- The Backpacker's Field Manual; Rick Curtis
- Princeton University: Outdoor Action Guide to High Altitude; Acclimatization and Illness
- Body Results: Ten Non-Medicated Ways to Cope with Altitude
- Backpacker: Mind Over Mileage: Breathing Techniques for Hiking
- Appalachian Mountain Club: Lung Lessons
- MayoClinic.com: Dehydration
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.