How to Get the Lungs of a Mountain Sherpa

Do you struggle for breath during workouts? Is the panting and gasping stopping you from reaching your fitness potential? Get-Fit Guy takes a few lessons from the Sherpa people to help you increase oxygen capacity, lung capacity, and performance in any altitudes.

Ben Greenfield,
Episode #157

The Sherpa population in Tibet is world-renowned for their extreme levels of high-altitude fitness, often easily conquering Mount Everest climbs alongside seasoned and extremely fit climbers. You may have actually seen Nepalese Sherpas parodied in a popular Simpsons cartoon, in which Homer Simpson attempts to climb a difficult peak and the “lazy” Sherpas drag him up the mountainside at night in his sleeping bag as he snores away..

However, Sherpa altitude performance capabilities aren’t just the stuff of cartoons. A recent study actually found a mutation in the Sherpa population that allows them to have increased levels of an enzyme responsible for helping the cells' powerhouse – the mitochondria – use oxygen to produce energy.

But what if you’re not a genetically superior human being with increased oxygen utilization capacity? Are there other ways that you can get the lungs of a mountain Sherpa?

You bet!

And in this episode, you’re going to discover how to stop struggling for breath during a workout, increase your oxygen capacity, increase your lung capacity, and get a better workout at any altitude.

Why It’s Hard to Exercise at High Altitude

Recently, many fellowathletes  and I competed in the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe triathlon. The event turned out to be one of the most difficult races on the face of the planet, with the highest dropout and “did-not-finish” (DNF) rate of any other Ironman triathlon. It may not come as a surprise to you that the 6,500 foot elevation of Lake Tahoe played a large role in the difficulty of this event. 

But you don’t need to be doing an Ironman triathlon to experience the difficulties presented to your body by being at altitude. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a wilderness survival camp at 9,000 feet in Colorado. Despite my higher-than-average levels of fitness, I was huffing and puffing heavily within just a few minutes of hiking at this elevation.

So why is it so hard to exercise at altitude? While there are numerous books devoted to the topic of altitude and exercise, the basic problem is that there is significantly less oxygen in the air as altitudes approach about a mile or higher off the ground (around 5,000 feet), and as a result, your body simply has less oxygen to fuel brain, organs, and muscle activity. In other words, the air truly is “thinner.”

The first thing that happens when you get exposed to this thinner air is that your respiratory rate and heart rate speed up – whether you’re resting or exercising. But for many people, altitude sickness can also occur. The symptoms include uncomfortable headaches, fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness, and sleep disturbance. Unfortunately, exercise can aggravate these issues even more.

Check out 4 tips on how to get better lungs for improved performance at any altitude...


About the Author

Ben Greenfield
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