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Train your lungs ahead of mountaineering
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Train your lungs ahead of mountaineering

Mountaineering requires high lung capacity. Strengthen your heart and lungs with running, swimming and breathing exercises to embark on your climbing journey
Long hours of uphill climb demands physical strength. But the low oxygen levels at higher altitudes test one’s mental strength too. Endurance may be a challenge for a seasoned mountaineer too.
Consistent physical training for nearly a year helped Amrit to improve his lung capacity, ahead of his first mountaineering in 2019. (Photo by Praveen Jaykaran)

Shortness of breath, gasping and feeling loss of energy is natural while mountaineering and this is due to a change in altitude and oxygen levels. However, you can still aspire to climb a rock or ice, says Amrit A, a chef by profession and alpine climber by passion, who has helped many climbers live their dreams. Consistency, endurance and regular training are the key, he emphasizes.

Long hours of uphill climb demands physical strength. But the low oxygen levels at higher altitudes test one’s mental strength too. Endurance may be a challenge for a seasoned mountaineer too.

Speaking from his experience, Amrit explains, Alpine climbing — rock climbing, ice climbing, or mixed climbing—enforces massive pressure on lungs. Preparation with exercises is a must in improving one’s lung capacity and endurance for mountaineering.

Consistent physical training for nearly a year helped Amrit to improve his lung capacity, ahead of his first mountaineering in 2019.

Amrit, who began training himself for climbing during the pandemic is now guiding other enthusiasts too.

Why are exercises important for mountaineering?

Amrit, enumerates the factors that can affect lung health during mountain climbing:

Mountain sickness: One of the major challenges of climbing higher mountains is altitude sickness or a set of physical and behavioral symptoms, caused by low oxygen levels at higher altitudes. “It can occur to most people who climb above 1500 meters from the sea level,” cautions Amrit.

In severe cases, the blood vessels constrict and the fluid from the blood vessels can leak into the lungs and air sacs causing high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE). Another risk factor is high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), an acute mountain sickness marked by fluid accumulation and swelling in the brain.

Physical exertion: Alpine climbing would cause humongous physical exertion because the climber needs to carry a backpack which is typically 20-30 kilograms, including essential food, and clothing gears. This, along with uphill climb increases physical exertion, points out Amrit.

Exercises to improve lung capacity

Mountain climbing requires one to have good lung capacity to endure the tough weather conditions, says adds Dr Manjunath PH, consultant interventional pulmonologist, Gleneagles Hospital Kengeri, Bangalore. Endurance exercises, breathing exercises can help improve lung capacity.

Amrit highly recommends a combination of exercises ahead of mountaineering to strengthen the heart and lungs.

Running: “Regular running, in the long run, strengthens the heart muscles and lungs,” explains Amrit. He suggests following low heart-rate training, running slower to run longer running. This training plan was popularized by running coach, Phil Maffetone. “This prevents overtraining, tiredness, and risk of injuries. It also increases aerobic capacity and helps the body to perform well in extreme endurance sports and train the body to have low resting heart rate,” adds Amrit.

When practicing running, one must breathe through the nose, not mouth. This preserves energy and builds endurance, advises Leo Bharat, fitness trainer from Bangalore.

Swimming: Amrit explains, “Swimming improves blood pressure and builds heart strength.” It enhances breathing capacities by training the lungs to breathe efficiently, especially for people with asthma. “Irrespective of the style— freestyle, breaststroke, or others—one must never be out of breath when coming out of water. If a person can do 5-8 strokes in one breath, the person has bettered his/her lung capacity for mountain climbing,” he adds. Training lungs includes gradually developing the ability to stay underwater for at least two minutes without gasping for breath, under supervision, explains Bharat.

Breathing exercises: Be it for ice climbing or rock climbing, an individual breathes at a faster rate than regular breathing during mountain climbing. Thus, one needs a large breathing reserve to accomplish the task.

Slow and deep breathing exercises with breath-holding help to enhance lung capacity, explains Dr Manjunath. Between an inhale and exhale, one must be able to hold breath for at least 20-30 seconds and he/she can build this gradually, adds Bharat.

Bharat recommends early morning breathing exercises between 5 am-6 am every day for maximum benefits as the high oxygen levels in the air at that time, helps improve the lung function.

While climbing the mountains at higher altitudes, pursed lip breathing helps, suggests Amrit. “Pursed lip breathing is a slow breathing technique of inhaling briefly through the nose and exhaling longer through the mouth. Like blowing a candle,” he adds.

Signs of low lung capacity

For ardent climbers, the aim will be to reach the base camp rather than just the summit. A drop in the air pressure and reduced oxygen levels at higher altitudes increases the risk of lung issues. One must be aware of any changes in the body and take the necessary steps for one’s safety.

Breathlessness, giddiness, and chest tightness are the major risk factors for lung health during mountain climbing, warns Dr Manjunath.

The other symptoms include headaches, loss of appetite, dehydration, difficulty in movement, lethargy, behavioral changes such as irritability, memory loss, and blurred vision, explains Amrit.

Experts advise in these cases one must immediately descend by 200-300 meters altitude to increase the oxygen levels.

 

Tests to assess lung capacity for mountaineering

Dr Manjunath explains the tests that can help evaluate the lung function and lung capacity:

6-minute walking test: This begins with an evaluation of oxygen levels in a resting state. Next, the oxygen levels are checked again after walking for 6 minutes. A significant drop in oxygen levels indicates poor cardiac functions. These individuals should refrain from climbing, hiking, or trekking activities.

Spirometry test: It is a pulmonary function test that assesses the amount of air one can inhale and exhale. It also evaluates how easily, one can blow out the air from the lungs.

Peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR): This is a device that can be used in the comfort of their homes to measure the exhaling capacity of an individual. When assessed consistently, any changes in the breathing flow rate will be recorded.

Who should not take up mountain climbing?

Though mountaineering can be anybody’s dream, those with myocardial infarction, symptoms of asthma, COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and (Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD) must refrain from the same, says Dr Manjunath.

Takeaways

Exercises and breathing play a key role in improving one’s lung capacity for mountaineering. Mountain climbing requires one to consistently train the muscles to strengthen the lungs. Running, swimming and breathing are the most recommended exercises.

 

 

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