Lung capacity is a critical factor in your ability to conquer long trails or climb to high elevations. When I climbed Longs Peak in Colorado (14,000 feet) I couldn’t believe how the high altitude affected me. If you are a beginner, there’s no need to feel self-conscious about being out of breath, it’s a totally normal experience for both first-time and expert hikers to get a little winded
Now after 20 years of backpacking, I still find myself breathing heavily sometimes, even a little more as I get older. It’s just a simple fact of hiking and it’s ok to be out of breath sometimes. In fact, if you are breathing hard, it means you are challenging yourself, and that is something you should be proud of. And if you’re wondering how to increase your lung capacity, this blog post might be for you.
So, if you ever found yourself gasping for air while on a hike and wondered if there was a better way to breathe, then the answer is yes. Improving your lung capacity for backpacking is not only helpful for trail hiking; it’s good for your everyday activities as well.
WHAT IS LUNG CAPACITY?
According to the Lung Institute, lung capacity is defined as how much air (or oxygen) your body can use. Though it may seem similar, it is different from lung function, which is a term used to describe how much air your body can take in and how efficiently it works. While both of these actions are important, only lung capacity can be improved, lung function cannot. Simply put, your muscles need oxygen to function properly. As you breathe, your lungs work to intake oxygen and the heart pumps it out through the body to give your muscles the energy they need. This is the main reason why your heart beats faster to increase circulation and why you breathe more heavily during exercise.
According to the National Institute of Health, “in a resting state, you breathe on average, 15 times per minute“. While exercising, like say, scrambling up a rocky trail or high altitude hiking, your breath increases to 40-60 times per minute to keep the muscles working. Not only that, but chronic over-breathing can also be an issue in everyday life; we sometimes breathe 2-3 times more air than required without knowing it, and this can lead to health problems.
With healthy lungs and good lung capacity, even when you feel “out of breath” you still have a large breathing reserve. So, that means you have more strength, energy, and better functioning muscles that need less oxygen to work efficiently. That’s good info to know as you are cursing the climb up a mountain.
5 WAYS TO INCREASE LUNG CAPACITY
- Strengthen Muscles & Increase Stamina – Improving your exercise tolerance will help you increase your lung capacity for hiking, build stronger muscles, and increase your stamina so you can crush a longer hike! Try to fit in workouts that combine cardio and strength training about three times per week. This is the recommended amount of time that experts believe will bring a 5 to 15% increase in lung capacity.
- Breathwork – Along with your weekly workouts, set aside time to incorporate some simple and impactful breathing exercises as well. Not only can breathwork help to increase your hiking lung capacity, but it stimulates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which brings you feelings of peace and calm. Which is why Nature can be good for you. When the body is relaxed, you breathe easier! Simple Breathwork: Find a comfortable seat, either sitting upright or reclined and close your eyes. Inhale in for a count of four or five. Hold for three seconds (as you repeat this exercise, work up to a five-second hold). Exhale all the air out slowly and with control until empty. Draw your belly in towards your spine to help exhale completely. Repeat this about eight times.
- Stretching – Make room for your breath by doing simple stretches that release tightness in your shoulders, chest and side body. It’s always a good idea to start stretching before a hard hike anyway and with breathwork. Doing a few simple stretches will help to expand the muscles of your rib cage and diaphragm can help cultivate a greater lung capacity for hiking.
- Practice Good Posture – Many of us spend hours of the day sitting at a computer (yours truly) which generally causes us to hunch forward, along with driving, sitting on the couch, and the myriad other things we do that add up to affect our posture. Whether you’re standing, sitting, walking, or hiking, remind yourself to keep your back straight, your core engaged, and your shoulders back. Along with the stretches above, this helps open the chest and give the lungs more space to breath.
- Hike More – Consistency is key to building up more endurance and greater lung capacity on a hike. It might sound cliché but the more you get out there and hike, the better your hiking lung capacity will become. Work in hikes with some elevation gain to really get your heart and lungs working. Take the breathwork and postural practices you’ve been doing at home and apply them to real-life situations when you’re out on the trail.
It’s important to realize the advantages of good stretching, breathing, and posture when hiking. Along with good Nutrition these simple realizations can make your backpacking experience better when visiting higher elevations or hiking in the Mountains.