Your hiking lung capacity is a critical factor in your ability to conquer long trails or climb to high elevations. 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.
Before I started hiking regularly, I remember being embarrassed when I would be more out of breath than my friends on the trail. Now more than 15 years later, I still find myself breathing heavily sometimes, but I realize how silly it was to let that bother me. It’s just a simple fact of hiking. 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, you’re in the right place.
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 hiking is not only helpful for hiking; it’s good for your everyday activities as well.
Here are tried and true tips to help you increase your lung capacity for hiking so you can breathe more efficiently on the trail.
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.
How Does Lung Capacity Work?
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.
Why Should You Improve Your Lung Capacity?
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 alpine 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. How cool is that?
5 Ways to Increase Lung Capacity
1. 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 that long 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. Plus, with stronger muscles and higher tolerance, your body can intake oxygen more efficiently. Just remember to breathe while you’re exercising. Here are our favorite strength training exercises:
- Squats or jump squats
- Jumping jacks
- Standing calf raises – feet shoulder-width apart, raise your heels up & back down
- Leg lifts – lay on your back, feet straight out. Raise & lower one leg at a time (or both if you are advanced). Keep your arms under your bum for more stability and keep your low back pressed to the ground
- Stair master (or find stairs in your city – school gyms or parks)
- HIIT and bodyweight exercise classes – YouTube is a great place to get started
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. And guess what? When the body is relaxed, you breathe easier! Try these breathing exercises to stay calm, focused, and energized out on the trails and in your everyday life.
- 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.
- Box Breathing: In that same comfortable position, close your eyes and inhale fully while counting to 3. Hold your breath at the top for 3 seconds, then slowly exhale for 3 seconds. Finally, hold at the bottom of your exhale for 3 seconds. Repeat about eight times, and work your way up to 4, 5, or 6-second holds.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing: Find your comfortable seat and close your eyes. Cover your left nostril with one finger (ring finger works well) and inhale in for a count of six. Pinch both nostrils and hold for three seconds or longer. Cover your right nostril with your thumb and exhale out of your left nostril for five seconds. Inhale through your left nostril, hold, then exhale through your right nostril. Repeat this five times and practice extending the length of your inhales, exhales, and holds (inhale for six, hold for six, exhale for six, etc.). When you have finished, sit with your eyes closed and take at least three full rounds of breath, breathing as you normally, and notice the difference in your mind, body, and breath. Note: This exercise is especially helpful for stress and anxiety.
- Wim Hof Breathing: In a seated position, inhale deeply through the nose or mouth into the belly, then chest, and then exhale unforced through the mouth. Repeat this 30-40 times in short, powerful bursts. On your last inhalation, inhale as deeply as you can, then let the air out and stop breathing. Hold until you feel the urge to breathe again. On your next inhale, draw one big breath, hold for 15 seconds, and exhale. Repeat this entire sequence 3-4 times. Check out the Official Wim Hof app if you’d like a guide to help you practice this regularly.
To learn more about the science of breathing and different breathwork techniques, check out the book, The Oxygen Advantage.
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 a yoga practice and incorporate movement with breathwork, but if yoga is not for you, 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.
4. Practice Good Posture
Many of us spend hours of the day sitting at a computer 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.
5. 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.
How to Breathe at High Altitudes
On high alpine hikes, you will encounter thinner air pressure which makes it more difficult for your lungs to take in oxygen since the air pressure inside your body is higher than it is outside. I couldn’t believe the effects when I was on my Everest Basecamp Trek last year way up at 18,000 feet. Even when hiking above 8,000 feet I notice myself getting out of breath more quickly than normal.
To combat the challenges of high altitude, breathe slowly and deeply to decrease your heart rate and help your body to take in the oxygen it needs. Try to pace your stride with the slow rhythm of your breath and if you really feel like you’re struggling for air, slow down the pace.
Have you improved your hiking lung capacity? What advice do you have for others?