Is Breathing Your Climbing Problem?

Improper breathing in climbing can be very dangerous. Climbing is an activity that takes place in high altitudes, demands intense focus, uses extreme amounts of sustained energy, and requires solving complex problems against the clock. All of these things take a hit when your brain does not receive enough oxygen and make you prone to simple mistakes.

The stress we experience while climbing, though enjoyable, puts us in a similar position as when we are stressed in our daily lives. Because your body does not know the difference between placing technical gear towards the end of a full day or pulling an all nighter to make sure every TPS report has a cover, the practice you give yourself doing both activities becomes ingrained as a habit. This means that holding your breath, breathing too shallow, or breathing through your mouth as a result of one type of stress means that’s how you breathe when experiencing the other, fun type of stress.

Proper breathing techniques are not limited to oxygen-lacking environments, you can reap the benefits of breathing well right at home even as you read this article. Most of us learn breathing just like we learn running, by doing it. But, because it is such a ubiquitous behavior, it is possible that you have never even taken a pause to analyze your own breathing pattern. However, breathing is something that we do every couple seconds, and even the slightest variation over the course of one day is multiplied on average up to 23,000 times; that’s twenty-three thousand times in one day. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise to you that being aware of our breathing and correcting when we notice bad habits can significantly affect how we feel and how we perform.

This is especially true during climbing and mountaineering activities. At elevation, you are already getting only a fraction of the oxygen you normally breathe. Now, multiply this 23,000 times, and you can begin to appreciate why bottled oxygen is such so fundamental on any meaningful mountain. However, getting more oxygen is not limited to boosting your performance at altitude, but is closely tied to both complex and simple decision making, mood, and fatigue and recovery. Basically, the less oxygen that is absorbed by your body, the less capable your body is of functioning even at your home gym, at sea level.

Common Bad Habits

When we are born, the doctor winds up and slaps our bum to encourage our first gasp and kick starts a process that continues until our very last breath. This is most likely the last time anyone helps us with our breathing and it is pretty much instinct that directs us from that moment. As babies that lack the capacity for self-consciousness we actually employ good breathing technique. However, as we grow and become more conscious of social norms and experience anxiety and stress, bad breathing habits appear and accumulate. What’s worse is that these habits are never checked and compound, working together to slowly strangle you and steal an appreciable amount of your full potential for completing practically any task.

So, why don’t you relax, become conscious of your breathing, and ask yourself if you do any of the following.

  • Are you a mouth breather?

Besides generally being an insult, this is probably the most detrimental habit you can have. In children, mouth breathing can cause crooked teeth, facial deformities, or poor growth. In adults, chronic mouth breathing can cause bad breath, gum disease, and can worsen symptoms of other illnesses. In the short term, mouth breathing depletes carbon dioxide levels, reduces blood circulation, slows down your brain and reflexes, and even causes spells of dizziness that can result in unconsciousness. This one is easy to check with a mirror.

  • Do you breathe using only your upper chest?

You can check this by standing against a wall or laying down, then placing one hand on your chest, and the other on your belly. If the hand on your belly barely moves, this means that you are not taking advantage of a significant portion of your lungs to absorb oxygen. Breathing with only your upper chest is like filling your Nalgene only halfway every time you go outdoors.

  • Do you over-breathe?

Take a moment to count seconds in your breathing; on the inhale first, then on the exhale including the pause before you begin to inhale again. Your body actually absorbs more oxygen on exhalation, partly resulting from the additional pressure in your lungs as the air is compressed and pushed out. As this part is more important, the ratio of the two, inhale and exhale, should favor the exhale. So, it is actually better for us to exhale for longer than inhaling.

  • Are your breaths too shallow?

Test this by lying on the ground and placing your hands on your lower ribs. As you breathe, these ribs should rise and fall gently together with your diaphragm. This issue is nearly synonymous with upper chest breathing, but can be caused by simply taking breaths that are too shallow.

  • Do you reverse-breathe?

This is a major problem that can truly limit your abilities during physical exertion such as climbing. Reverse breathing happens when your diaphragm retracts when you inhale and extends on you exhale. This reverses the function of the diaphragm and causes your body to work against itself with every breath.

  • Do you hold your breath?

Especially during focused activity like climbing, take a moment to pay attention to your breath. Many people “freeze up” when they are paying close attention and hold their breath after inhaling. It is possible that this has roots in the colloquial phrase “don’t hold your breath,” referring to the anticipation one feels when they are awaiting a result. One symptom is a punctuated exhale, as if finally releasing built up tension.

The Problem

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then you are robbing yourself of air with every breath, and as a result robbing yourself of your full potential in practically any activity. But, don’t worry! Experts estimate that most people breathe at 10-20% their full capacity, so you are not alone. Plus, we are all alive, so the only thing that will change is you’ll live better when you breathe better!

Unfortunately, improper breathing results in a plethora of problems; especially relevant for athletes is problems resulting from mouth-breathing. Your nose, heart, and lungs are very closely connected via the nervous system. Breathing improperly through your nose can alter your heart rate and blood pressure, and consequently increase your stress response. In addition, your nose makes about 2 pints of mucous every day. If your nose isn’t working properly and mucous isn’t cleared, the stagnant mucous can lead to infections such as sinusitis or ear infections, especially in the vulnerable state your body is in after serious exertion. Other effects of chronic poor-breathing include fatigue, anxiety, high blood pressure, insomnia, and even cancer! In fact, in 1931 Otto Warburg was awarded the Nobel Prize when he demonstrated that only oxygen-starved cells experience mutation that becomes cancerous. However, for climbers, the consequences can manifest much more rapidly.

There is good news, however; practicing proper breathing has instant benefits and can result in a full recovery that feels like you just earned a power-up!

The Road to Recovery

Becoming aware of what breathing habits you have is the first step towards recovery. It can be as simple as noticing your breath throughout the day (which I are sure you will do at least after reading this full article). When you notice your breath, you can consciously relax your abdomen and allow for slower, fuller breaths. For those seeking to attack these bad habits to improve our performance and safety roped up, you can start with simple exercises that you can incorporate during most any casual activity.

A simple exercise is the three step breathing technique; an exercise is literally mindful breathing. I recommend setting an alarm every day to start the habit, but it can be employed at most any opportunity. All you have to do is become conscious of your breathing and be deliberate about doing it correctly. Start by adjusting your posture so that your back is straight and your lungs can comfortably expand to capacity. Breathe in through the nose for three seconds, hold your breath for three seconds, and then exhale through the nose again for three seconds. Keep your focus on filling the lungs into the abdomen while extending the diaphragm so you feel your stomach expand slightly. Do this for just a minute alone at home, behind the desk at work, while standing in line, or even in the shower.

The three step breathing technique is simple enough to get you started, but what about performance enhancing goals?

Well, if you’re up for it… try breathing through your nose during exercise. Ultimately, with practice, you will be able to keep a sustained pace climbing mountains while casually but deliberately breathing through your nose. Now, we do not recommend sprinting 100m at full speed and holding your mouth shut – you will pass out! In fact, it is safest to try this with a partner who is aware of your intentions; start small and work your way up. Try walking quickly and ease into a casual jog while keeping your mouth shut. Slowly increase speed until you feel the need to gasp for air and slow down just enough so that gasp never comes. Please be mindful that you should absolutely not feel like you are forcing your mouth shut or forcing air through your nose. The trick to this exercise is finding the balance between breathing and your body’s physical exertion. Do just that, be mindful and let yourself gasp if you need to.

After some time getting used to this, try this out on the trail or roped up during sustained exertion (not bursts of exertion such as sprints!). Though it may feel like your nose is incapable of pushing through enough air at first, you can rest assured that we are physically designed for it. Our bodies are fine tuned so that the amount of oxygen we need for our muscles, brain, and other organs can sufficiently be drawn through the nose while traveling long distances. 

In fact, I have personally experienced significant improvements to my endurance by breathing through my nose at altitude. In the past I would need to stop occasionally to catch my breath and take a break. I attribute this to pushing harder than my body could sustain resulting in a higher heart rate, profuse sweating, and shortness of breath. However, breathing through my nose forced me to slow down physically to compensate as I could only draw so much air. Once I discovered a balance, I was able to train my body and breathing together. Ultimately, using this practice I reached Mt. Everest Base Camp with a full pack, without feeling the need to stop at the designated break spots my sherpa and porter were used to resting at. In fact, my sherpa even complained to me and then showed me the blister he developed following at the pace I set out – all while breathing only through my nose. I am just as surprised as you, even now.

 

Relief!

The benefits of these exercises extend beyond a feeling of accomplishment. Slow, deliberate breathing has been proven to reduce shortness of breath, increase oxygen saturation in the blood, and improve exercise performance. While climbing this means increased focus, extended endurance, more power, better decision making skills, less anxiety, an “even keel” in stressful situations.

But wait, there’s more! Caution, here’s some science: breathing properly encourages full, deep breaths that stimulate the lower as opposed to the upper lungs. The upper lungs, stimulated by chest and mouth breathing, prompt the body to hyperventilate and trigger sympathetic nerve receptors; the receptors responsible for fight or flight. On the other hand, the lower lungs are rich with parasympathetic nerve receptors associated with calming the body and mind. Also, proper breathing technique encourages proper oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange that directly affects blood pH balance. Breathing in through the mouth causes sudden loss of carbon dioxide and our body compensates by absorbing less oxygen, making us feel dizzy or even to lose consciousness. Also also, air inhaled through the nose passes through the nasal mucosa, stimulating the reflex nerves that regulate breathing. Mouth breathing bypasses this procedure and makes regular breathing difficult. Also³, our sinuses produce nitric oxide that combats harmful bacteria and viruses, not to mention the microscopic cilia nose hair that filter out literally billions of particles every day. And finally, improper breathing through the mouth dries out your throat and contributes to dehydration.

Are you breathing wrong?

Perhaps this simple question can help you become conscious of something so very simple and free, and improve the time you spend away from this screen. Let me know below if you have had this experience, or if you have any tricks that were not mentioned here.


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