Sunday, August 11, 2013

Lung Power

At Everest's South Col
showing off my O2 unit.
A necessity for me, and optional
for those with higher O2 uptake.
  (Fitness opinion)

Climbing Lhotse wall (going to Everest summit) at ~24,000ft (without supplemental O2) ultimately tested not just my will and acclimatization readiness, but my maximum lung capacity and efficiency! Imagine – 8 breathes (to get enough oxygen), for every 1 step (-at least in the latter part of my trip to Camp3).

I was not born with a super genes leading to high VO2 max (or oxygen uptake), and I felt I was struggling with high altitude activity. Fortunately, my will is stronger than my body haha! That’s why I maintained that high altitude mountaineering is 80-90% mental! But that’s not my topic…

For anyone who wishes to increase his/her oxygen uptake (which ultimately dictated one’s aerobic performance level) – one key thing is to increase his/her lung capacity and efficiency. There a few ‘lung trainings’ that one can do to improve not just his/her survival in the mountains (or competitive endurance sports) but his/her performance. And it doesn’t always have to be mountaineering-related!

Heart/cardio strengthening activities are by default lung capacity building as well. I have previous posts on those here: Make your heart stronger and high-altitude training. Let me add that for mountaineering, the best training is – mountaineering. Uphill! Weighted! Good, steady pace!

But let me share some other ways how to increase lung efficiency as added routines and/or even maximize one's weekdays (especially for the working class):

1. Swimming. Or rather “Hypoxic swimming”. The good news is that, one can do swimming during weekdays, even several times in a week, and even while doing ‘muscle recovery’ (i.e. slow but air-deprived). There are many recommended routines mostly as part of the normal competitive swimmers’ training regimen, which anyone can simply re-apply. My own simplified version is simply sustaining a long swim (1hr normally, or longer if you can hold your pee) it doesn’t even matter how long (2km or less?). Being a one-sided breather (I am NOT a competitive swimmer), I start with 1 breath/ 4 strokes cycle, then extend to 1 breathe/ 6 strokes, then extend to 1b/8s and sustain this for a long time. Towards the end, I extend to 1b/10s or 12s, and occasionally do no-breath lap (25m pool). Did it ever help? I don’t know, but I felt good! Haha!

2. Free (skin) diving. You do this with a trained buddy, and understand that this is a dangerous sport in itself (i.e. blackout underwater is a real possibility). Obviously, the intent is air-deprivation training, so depth per se is not the goal. Depth of course will help, as you go down – the water pressure compresses your lungs so it’s another form of challenge for your lungs (to provide specific pressure-volume relationship: at 33ft the pressure is doubled, and lung volume is compressed to half the size). Free diving as lung training doesn’t have to be a boring routine. If you find pool training to be boring, bring your friends to a nearby coastal area (if you have money – go to a dive resort where coral reef is good), and snorkel with them. Spend more time free diving and enjoying the reef – playing with Nemo, feather star, clams (just don’t harm them) – while naturally exercising your lungs. One would realize that as he/she keeps free diving, the holding time gets better.

3. Breathing exercise or meditation. You don’t need to be a yogi, a monk, a priest, or an expert martial artist to perform this exercise. You don’t even need to go to a gym. One may do breathing exercise at home, in the office, while sitting in the bus, boat, airplane or just about anywhere! But be aware that different techniques apply to different people. Some groups don’t believe in/agree with ‘deep breathing’ for example (which is used by many practitioners), and instead favoured ‘reduced breathing’ exercise (more like the hypoxic swimming version) where one breathes very slowly and less (i.e. less air overall vs. hyperventilation). My suggestion? Slow breathing (use nose), long hold after inhale, exhale very slowly (use nose, may use mouth exhale in the last part to empty the lungs), then hold long (deprivation) then slow inhale. Don’t hyperventilate (short deep inhale) or max out your lungs (increasing O2 intake and abnormally reducing CO2). With physical activity, O2 consumption is higher and hence intake is ok to be higher. With resting/sitting/lying down position during a breathing exercise, too much air intake may not really add benefit. When one is at max O2 use, extra O2 will not mean anything. Unless one is sick or at high-altitude needing extra O2. One can try doing this slow breathing for 10mins first, then longer as one gets more comfortable (say 30mins or even more), OR until he/she falls asleep. And speaking of high altitude, when I do ‘recovery breathing’ at night times (before sleeping) in a high altitude environment, the breathing routine differed. I normally do deeper inhale, pause-hold for 1 or 2 beats, then shorter exhale. And normally with elevated head. The idea is to get as much O2 as possible, given air deprived environment and body (i.e. blood in the body normally have below-normal O2 saturation).

So when you started to climb that hill and experienced my slowness-problem of doing many breathes to make one step, you’d realize you needed more lung strengthening than what you thought was needed.

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