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I've come across a lot of articles talking of breathing techniques while running. However, I've not come across any which talks of breathing techniques for tough hikes (tough in terms of inclination and distance).

Are there any breathing guidelines/methods that help during tougher, high inclination, long duration hikes? (I'm assuming a high altitude hike might end up having simlar breathing techniques along with the requirement of slow ascent for acclimatization)

On one of the hikes in the himalayan foothills, one of the locals told that they synchronize their steps with their breath and that helps them to keep going on for long.

Note: This question talks about breathing while bouldering. It addresses specifically the issues faced while bouldering (beautiful answer as well).

  • My answer to this question would be the same as the one in the breathing while bouldering question. Not sure if I should repeat it here, but please do check it out. – cr0 Apr 6 '18 at 20:54
  • If you want I can recycle it and try to make it even more specific to steep inclination hiking. A lot of the same principles apply, e.g. stay in motion (as in, at the least, keep breathing to avoid getting 'stuck' in lungs or limbs), make movements with your breath, in through your nose out through your mouth, etc. – cr0 Apr 6 '18 at 20:56
  • @cr0 Go ahead and add it as an answer. The answer had some specific bouldering move related techniques as well. Hence it wouldn't be straight forward migration of the answer. You can suggest what other things work as well. – Ricketyship Apr 9 '18 at 6:45
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Adapted from my answer to Correct breathing while bouldering with slight modifications for dealing with differences between bouldering (more stop-and-go, brief high intensity moves) and high inclination hiking (more steadily challenging, with longer stops when one does take a break).


In various sports and even day-to-day life, breathing techniques make a difference in performance. Generally, you want to breathe in your nose and out your mouth, and breathe deeply, steadily, and with your breathing muscles relaxed. Deep, steady, relaxed breathing can be especially difficult during exercise. You may need to adapt your rate of breathing depending on your activity level. Nonetheless if you can breathe deeply and steadily (rhythmically) that will help maintain performance and stay relaxed.

It is important not to hold your breath because you put a lot of strain on yourself that way, and you can injure yourself more easily. Regarding particularly strenuous movements when you really have to haul your weight around, Ben C. noted the torso tension that can naturally be produced in weight lifting by holding one's breath, but weight lifters will also train to breathe through lifts for the sake of their long-term health and performance. One way to achieve the positives of both regularly breathing + holding your breath is to time your motions with your exhale or inhale. This is common in martial arts and yogas.

You can familiarize yourself with controlled breathing by practicing it with push-ups or other simple movements. Here's an example routine:

  • While breathing calmly and with a resting heart rate, enter push-up position
  • Begin each push-up movement with an inhale or exhale. Go down with an inhale, go up with an exhale (or vice versa, up to you, or perhaps mix it up and move on inhale before noon and move on exhale after noon). Each breath begins slightly before the motion, as if the motion follows the breath / the breath leads the motion.
  • Continue exercising this way until your breathing and heartbeat is in an excited state. At that point, relax and try to return to a resting state as soon as possible. Lay down, sit, stand, pace - whatever you need, but especially breathe with your entire lungs (from chest to belly) - to return to a calm, comfortable breath and heart rate.
  • Once you're back at a resting state, begin the practice again. As for how many times to go through this cycle, that's up to you, but I recommend you do fewer 'reps' in each session but have more frequent sessions (eg. only go through the cycle 3 times in a session, but have practice sessions many times a week). You can also mix up the exercise with push-ups one day, squats another day, a climbing activity another instance, taichi another instance, etc. As noted, this kind of practice can be integrated into everday-day activities - something as simple as opening a door or picking up & putting down a bag can be an opportunity to practice synchronizing breath and movement.

This routine of controlled excitation then relaxation is used by professional athletes (and was mentioned in a TGO.SE Q&A about scuba) as a way to develop more control over your breath, greater lung capacity, and importantly, more relaxed breathing during times of stress and exercise. As this aids in the performance of martial artists, yoga practitioners, and olympic athletes, I think it will also aid you in climbing.


A specific example of how this would be applied in tougher hikes:

As you begin and work through the hike, maintain a rhythmic, deep breath that uses your entire lungs, from chest to belly. When you move in a way that takes extra 'umph', make sure you synchronize the movement with a strong exhale or inhale. You should do this for all movements if possible (e.g. synchronizing a set of X amount of steps with each breath) but especially for moves that take extra energy or courage. You would begin a movement with eg. inhaling - a moment after your inhale begins you would begin the movement - with the inhale and the intended movement completing around the same time.

Throughout the hike, try to keep steady breathing that uses your entire lungs (and accordingly, you'll need steady or smooth movements to match that). You'll find you need to keep your body more relaxed and your motions more rhythmic. The 'relaxed' part is probably the most difficult, because you may tend to tense up muscles in use and put more strain than needed on the main muscle you're using. A key to relaxing is putting minimal tension on muscles - only enough to do what needs to be done - and also working with your entire body to make efficient, balanced movements to 'distribute' muscle tension and keep you most relaxed overall. To do this, try to pay attention to your muscle use. Ask yourself, where am I tense? What muscles am I using, and which ones do I need to use? If you find a part of your body tense that isn't actively being used, see if you can let go of the tension with an exhale, or try to move it around and loosen the muscle up a little (this can even be done while still in motion).

Posture is also very important for relaxed breathing and its benefits during hikes, and posture comes with numerous other benefits of efficient biomechanics. Even during breaks, posture is important so your lungs can take full and deep breaths, and so that you aren't unnecessarily straining muscles. Spread out! Open up! Don't get crunched. There are various websites on ideal posture for hiking which you can Google Search, but the important takeaway is pay attention to your body and let your own muscles recommend the fine-tuning. Again, practice it more often than not and practice it in everyday life to make it work in a time of need: Where am I putting my weight? Am I putting energy or tension into muscles I don't need to? Can I use my skeleton to provide support I'm currently getting from tense muscles? This fine-tuning will save you lots of energy and stress over the long haul.

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    Brilliant answer!!! – Ricketyship Apr 12 '18 at 14:08
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Paul Petzold, the founder of NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) was a big proponent of rhythmic breathing. The idea is that it helps one conserve energy and better utilize the air at higher altitudes.

He described it as,

in which the rate of breathing controls the speed of movement rather that the reverse. Conscious rhythmic breathing coordinated with body movements conserves much energy.

...

For example, when walking on level ground, one might take three steps with an in breath and three with an out breath. If the grades steepens a little, this down not mean that one starts puffing or that the heart begins to thump. Just shift gears, Breathing remains the same, but now two steps are taken with an in breath and two with an out breath. If the trail steepens even more, shift to one step with each inhale and one with each exhale. In this way the heartbeat remains almost constant bu the hiker slows down or speed up according to the number of steps taken with each breath. The output of energy remains the same.

...

Rhythmic breathing conserves energy, increases endurance, sets a good pace, and discourages the run-and-stop method practiced by beginners.

Rhythmic breathing is an absolute necessity in high altitude where one does not carry auxiliary oxygen and might risk lack of judgment, have hallucinations, or even suffer brain damage.

The New Wilderness Handbook (131-132)

Paul Petzold used rythmic breathing on the first attempt of K2 by an American team.

A decade later, he returned for what would be his last ascent. Aided by four former students and trained instructors, Petzoldt took two or three steps with each measured breath, practicing the rhythmic breathing method he developed in 1938 when he took on K2.

Source

I believe this is the same technique that was mentioned by the locals you talked to.

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Since you and I belong to the same geography for trekking/hiking, I think I can add 2 cents to this. I typically follow a similar pattern from what Charlie answered above.

I typically avoid going slow on short sections of highly inclined trails. For such ascends what I do is:

  • Avoid breathing in by mouth, breathin always through nose, breath out always through mouth
  • Breath in, take 2 steps in close to 2 seconds, then take 4-5 steps as I breath out in a controlled manner for about 3 seconds. I feel like my lungs want me to breath out quicker, but I hold.
  • Pause a bit, a bit shy off a second.
  • Repeat

This works amazingly well, takes a bit of toll on shins though.

On a longer inclined ascend (Best example would be last 30% of the climb of 'Kulang' in AMK trio), I do this:

  • Avoid breathing in by mouth, breathin always through nose, breath out always through mouth
  • Breath in, take a could of steps, pause a bit, a bit shy off a half a second, then take a couple steps as I breath out in a controlled manner
  • Pause a bit, a bit shy off a second.
  • Repeat

I used the same breathing pattern while ascending Mt. Kanamo last season. Its not a tough mountain to climb, absolutely non-technical peak. People usually set up the summit camp (At about 4600 m) after a couple of hours of hike from village (Kibber, used to be world's highest village) and then start early in the day for summit which sits at 5974 m (officially, but on both attempts my GPS ticked 6025 m). The ascend part didn't trouble me whatsoever.

  • Surprisingly, I'll be at Kanamo in August after finishing Pin Parvati :D – Ricketyship Apr 6 '18 at 10:28
  • @Ricketyship: Oh, wow. Mid-July 2019 I'll be in and around Kaza, then off to Shila peak and around Lakhang :-) – WedaPashi Apr 6 '18 at 11:35
  • AMK reminiscences of my first trek in western ghats :D – eirenaios Oct 16 '18 at 13:05
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    @eirenaios: Ah, good to know. Starting off in Western Ghats with AMK is pretty impressive. :-) – WedaPashi Oct 16 '18 at 15:22

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