Newsletter 12 – The Carbon Dioxide Edition

Do you ever feel like you just can’t get enough air when you’re hiking? Maybe it feels like tightness in the chest, constriction around the neck, or the inability to take a satisfying breath while exercising. Perhaps you’re wondering why some people don’t need to stop and take several breaks on the way up the mountain, while you find yourself stopping to rest more frequently.

If you’ve experienced this, and you are hoping to get fitter in order to breathe better, then this information is for you!

I want to peel back the layers on this very common hiking fitness issue. I’m hoping that by reading this, you can see another perspective on how the biochemistry of your body is having a significant impact not only your breathing in the mountains, but also in many facets of your daily life.

The HUGE misconception about Cardiovascular Training

There’s a huge misconception in the fitness world that doing more cardio will improve your breathing. Whilst that may be true for some people, it’s not the case for everyone. Many of the clients I work with have put months or even years into training  their cardiovascular system, but with little to no results – below is just one example.

The client in question had struggled with breathing issues, high heart rate and anxiety for years. Within just 1 week of working together you can see from her heart rate data that this began to change immediately when we started working together on her breathing:

This client dropped 8-10 points on her resting heart rate in under 2 weeks!

This client in particular had done years of targeted heart rate training and typical cardio with the aim of improving her situation. It wasn’t until we worked on her ability to tolerate carbon dioxide when things started to shift dramatically.

What’s happening in our body when you’re out of breath?

As you exercise, you produce carbon dioxide which is cycled through the body and expelled in the process of exhalation. As more carbon dioxide builds up in the blood from increased activity, the breathing centre in the brain responds with an increase in respiratory rate in order to dump the carbon dioxide from the blood and tissues.

Which means that your sensitivity to carbon dioxide is the primary stimulus to breathe.

In most cases, there is already plenty of oxygen in the lungs, since you breathe in somewhere between 500mL to 1000mL or air each breath. So although conventional wisdom and common sense suggests that lack of oxygen is the issue, it is very rarely the case.

The primary cause of this feeling of tightness in the chest and breathlessness is neither a lack of fitness, nor lack of oxygen in the blood, but rather a blood biochemistry issue where the body has become overly sensitive to the accumulation of carbon dioxide.

So What’s the Solution?

The solution to this problem is not to release more carbon dioxide with heavier and more frequent breathing, but rather to train the breathing centre in the brain to understand that the accumulation of carbon dioxide is safe and healthy.

There’s this old belief that carbon dioxide is just a waste gas that plays no role in the body and must be expelled. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In 1904 a Danish Scientist named Christian Bohr identified a key relationship between oxygen, carbon dioxide and haemoglobin, which is a protein containing iron that facilitates the transport of oxygen in the red blood cells. Bohr discovered that Carbon Dioxide is necessary in the body because it is the very molecule that allows oxygen to bind to haemoglobin, meaning that the oxygen is more readily delivered to the tissues where it is needed.

This is the foundational principle that this week’s video is based on, which shows you how to test your sensitivity to carbon dioxide and shows you a breathing exercise that you can start with in order to become less sensitive to the build up of C02 and essentially improve your breathing on and off the mountain.

Not to mention, improving your health by almost every measurable metric.

Are you an unfit hiker or is it just carbon dioxide?

What are the signs of low CO2 tolerance?

How do you know if you have a low tolerance to carbon dioxide? Well aside from performing the BOLT test shown in the video above, it’s also useful to pay attention to the signs your body is giving you. The list below includes some of the most common indicators of a low tolerance to C02. So if any of these sound familiar it is likely you will have a low BOLT score, and/or a low score on the Maximum Breathlessness Test.

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar?

General Fatigue: poor concentration, sleep disturbances, impaired memory, allergies

Respiratory:  tight chest, frequent sighing, yawning, sniffing, irritable coughing, breathlessness

Cardiovascular:  irregular or fast heart rate, heart palpitations, chest pain, cold hands or feet

Musculoskeletal: muscle pain, cramping, twitching, muscle weakness, seizure or spasms

Gastrointestinal: heartburn, IBS, bloating, difficulty swallowing, abdominal discomfort

Neurological: dizziness, headaches and migraines, tingling or numbness in hands/feet

Psychological: anxiety, tension, depression, depersonalization, panic attacks, phobias

As you can see these symptoms are quite widespread, and that speaks to the importance of breathing and how crucial it is to our health. This list was identified by Dr. Claude Lum who was a respiratory physician at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge in 1991. He was known particularly for his studies on hyperventilation.

Developing a breathing practice

The good news is that you have the power to restore functional breathing and improve your respiration both at rest and during hiking. I’ve created follow along routines and an entire breathing module in my Momentum Membership which takes you through this process step by step.

Is it foolproof? No. This can be a difficult process for many. The simple act of sitting down and breathing can bring on anxiety in some people, and everyone’s experiences and sensations during this process is slightly different, which is why I’m dedicating so much of my time to work with people one on one to finally resolve their breathing difficulties and rapidly improve their health & hiking.

Watch my latest webinar

If you want to learn more about the relationship between breathing, the mind and the body then register to watch my free 30 minute webinar on the topic. Where I explain the role that the respiratory diaphragm plays in maintaining posture, relaxation and functional biomechanics.

Self Guided Breathing Practice

The breathing module in my membership Momentum has been available for more than a year, yet most people struggle with understanding why breathing is important and how to implement it. In order to rectify that, I have developed a series of schedules in Momentum to provide a clearer picture of how this can be implemented.

The Latest Podcast: Peanut Butter & Mountains Ep#91

I was recently a guest on this podcast with Chad Lubinski where we discussed breathing issues, the role of the diaphragm, fascia and the optimal training for Thru Hikers. This is an easy listen and a fun chat that explains some of the topics I’ve covered here.

I hope you learned the key lessons here:

1. Carbon Dioxide is the primary stimulus to breathe

2. The way you breathe in exercise is determined by how you breath at rest

3. Progress comes from developing a regular practise

Thanks for your opening mindedness and willingness to take on new information that goes against the mainstream fitness narrative. Let me know what you learned and how you will apply it moving forward.

I’ll see you on the summit.