It’s an uphill battle for our muscles when we ascend a mountain without breathing enough air into our lungs. We are concentrating on our footing, the beauty around us, and our desire to push ourselves as hard as we can. It’s easy to forget about relaxing your breath when there’s so much to be excited about. Adding intention to your breathing can improve muscular and cardiovascular function.
Hiking is an aerobic activity which means oxygen is used to breakdown carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into energy for the muscles. When you’re not receiving enough oxygen to keep up with demand, you stress your muscles and fatigue occurs. Although breathing is automatic, you can adopt certain techniques to help the pulmonary system work more in unison with the rest of your body.
According to a 2012 article published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Inspiratory Muscle Training or breathing exercises has been associated with improvements in performance, enhanced oxygen uptake, reduced blood lactate, diaphragm fatigue, and cardiovascular responsiveness.
Try incorporating the following techniques into your next hike to improve awareness of self and the world around you.
Belly Breathing vs. Chest Breathing
Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Which one is moving? Odds are it’s the hand on your chest. When you chest breathe, especially while exercising, your upper body is tense, utilizing energy that could be used elsewhere. Belly breathing uses the diaphragm; the muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen, and the intercostal muscles, located between the ribs to inflate and deflate the belly like a balloon. Breathing with the diaphragm allows you to use more of your lung capacity and deliver more oxygen rich blood to your muscles. To strengthen the diaphragm, practice belly breathing when you’re at work or relaxing at home. Eventually, it will be more natural to do when you’re exercising.
Try following the 3:2 ratio where you inhale for 3 steps and exhale for 2 steps. This way you are creating a rhythm with your movements. Creating a rhythm will allow you to breath deeper, develop a sustainable pace, stay relaxed, and focused.
Stretching is also an important component of improved breathing. Stretching the muscles of the upper body can help elongate the spine and open the chest. Before you hit the trailhead, be sure to loosen up your body by stretching and hitting all the major muscle groups.
No matter your reason for hitting the trail, be it a workout or casual adventuring, putting intention into your breathing can help improve the entire experience. You’ll find yourself taking fewer rest breaks and becoming more aware of your body and how you interact with the world around you. Happy trails!
Apryl Bantom is a Certified Exercise Phyisologist, Detroit native, and aspiring beekeeper. She graduated from Grand Valley State University with a B.S in Exercise Science. When she’s not wrangling up a pack of teenagers, she training for her first half marathon. Apryl is currently exploring trails in and around Phoenix, AZ. You can find her on Instagram @aprylmai