Raise your hand if you’ve experienced breathing issues during a hike.

Raise the other one if you’ve started breathing heavily the first or two minutes after you started walking on the trail. Raise an alarm if you’ve experienced chest pains while breathing heavily during a hike.

If all three of these scenarios did not make any of your arms budge, congratulations! But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep reading.

While gasping and catching your breath is pretty normal in physical exertions like hiking at a moderate to fast pace, it shouldn’t reach to the point where it’s distracting you from the pleasure of enjoying the whole trip and appreciating the magnificent views all around you with a big smile on your face. Conversely, if you think you’re doing a pretty good job managing your breaths, there are ways to improve it even further.

Breathing Is Life

It’s interesting how we’re usually reminded of the importance of a life-supporting, involuntary physical function – in this case, breathing – when we’re already having a hard time doing it. We then turn inwards, trying to respond to our body’s heaving beckoning, listening to its need.

When that happens, we’re less likely to notice the wonderful views to the left or the group of animals passing by to the right. We also realize that a such a small and simple act, usually taken for granted, can actually make or break your day.

That considered, it is important to breathe properly and efficiently. Although breathing is second nature and has been done at the moment of birth, most people actually do not breathe optimally – and this is not just down to a lack of exercise. You’ll know you’re one of those who do not when you start catching your breath not long after you start walking, especially going up an incline, even though you’re not exactly overweight or don’t have a health condition.

A Quick Check

engelberg
Photo taken at Engelberg

What’s the proper way to breathe, then? First, let’s check how YOU breathe. Put a hand on your stomach while seated in an upright position. You can also do this check while lying down on your back on a flat surface or on your bed. Take one full breath and see whether your stomach is moving as you do so. Notice which part of your torso moves as you take a breath.

Then, while still observing your chest area, exhale fully. Which part moved as you let all the air out?

If your chest is very active all throughout, moving up at the inhale and down on the exhale, you’re likely a shallow breather and probably have breathing difficulties during hikes. If your stomach is doing much of the work (instead of the chest), pat yourself on the back – you have good breathing dynamics and probably can go up inclines without gasping too much. People in the latter group are considered stomach breathers.

Also, do you inhale and exhale mostly through your nose or mouth? Or both?

Breathing 101

The most efficient way to breathe, even in your day-to-day activities, involves your belly. That’s because your belly area can hold a lot more air than both of your lungs. Relying only on your lungs will easily get you out of breath and also accumulate more carbon dioxide (which leads to a more acidic blood) in your body. You will want to infuse more oxygen into your bloodstream so that you’re capable of carrying out strenuous activities more easily.

As in all other things in life, moderation is still key to breathing. It is also not wise to breathe with your mouth open and with nostrils flaring just to maximize your oxygen intake. You do also need that carbon dioxide to maintain the acid and base balance in your blood. Remember that quick fix for people who are hyperventilating or panicking? Making them breathe into a paper bag helps them normalize their body’s pH levels by re-inhaling carbon dioxide as hyperventilation can be triggered by excessive oxygen intake.

Do know that, if you are a chest breather, you will need to practice breathing with your belly for weeks to make stomach-based breathing natural and second nature. Be patient with yourself – consistent, proper, constant, and mindful practice will speed up the learning process.

The Process

Practice inhaling slowly through your nose and letting your belly expand as you do so, taking care to keep your chest steady. Think of your stomach as a balloon and that you’re pumping air into it as you inhale. Then, exhale slowly through the nose, allowing your belly to slowly deflate as you do so. Do this step 10 times each day to help retrain your body to breathe properly.

Make sure that your mouth is not open the entire time to prevent too much loss of oxygen or carbon dioxide. The more sets you do daily, the faster you progress.

You can also practice while lying down and having a medium-sized book on top of your belly. If the book goes up and down as you inhale and exhale, you’re doing the whole thing correctly. Keep practicing until you are able to get your belly to expand without the chest expanding at the same time. The chest should remain stable and resting the entire time. If there’s any lift in the chest, it should only be minimal.

While practicing your breathing, make sure that your posture is upright and your shoulders stable and in line with your hips (when viewed from the side). Your shoulders should not be hunched and your chin must not be going into your neck but level and pointing forward.

Also, your shoulders should NOT rise when you’re inhaling. It should be steady and remain level even as you inhale. Otherwise, you’re just straining yourself unnecessarily. The only body part that should visibly rise when you are breathing in is your belly/stomach.

Progression

val-ferret
Photo taken at Val Ferret

Once you’ve got the belly breathing down, try using it during your normal daily activities, especially when walking around the house or to work. Practice belly breathing while walking. Also, notice how you breathe while you’re talking to someone. You should still be using the belly breathing technique as you do so.

Of course, the same thing should happen while you’re hiking – your belly must be the one working harder where your breathing is concerned. When walking on a hilly or inclined terrain, you can exhale with your mouth a bit open. Remember that losing too much carbon dioxide and taking too much oxygen are both not good for you, so strive to maintain that balance.

Further, you should have a rhythm to your breathing. You can, for example, inhale and exhale every two steps. Left foot forward, right foot forward, inhale; left foot forward, right foot forward, exhale. Or you can do it every three steps. You can even inhale for three steps and then exhale for two. Experiment and find the rhythm most ideal for you.

When the incline is sharper and you’re breathing harder, it’s better to focus on your exhale. Try to exhale sharply, almost like you’re trying to remove an obstruction in your nostrils using just your breath. Don’t overdo this – it should not be too much of an effort.

The point in doing this sharp exhale is that your inhale will be a more reflexive, natural action as the sudden release of air creates a vacuum in your respiratory passageway and somehow allows the air to be “sucked in” automatically. You conserve energy this way as you only focus on the exhale. You can exhale every three steps so that you never exhale on the left or right foot all the time, which also aids in balance.

When you’re hiking at a high altitude, you should take lesser breaths as the air is thinner. Inhale slowly but exhale sharply so that you ensure you’re getting enough oxygen as there’s less of it in thin air.

Easy Does It

Never sit down or stop suddenly during pit stops on a hike. You have to help your body and your breath wind down naturally. You can lean against a wall or a tree while standing up or walk in place or around a little bit to help your heartbeat slow down gradually. Adjust your breathing and try to slow it down by inhaling and exhaling gradually slowly.

Belly breathing will help you enjoy your hikes better (and make your hike challenge easier) and even get you grinning through hilly terrain despite the effort. Try improving your breathing technique with these tips and tell us about the results!

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