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If you want to go places, find something to push against.

Breathe like a Sherpa

Nearly every Himalayan climber knows what it's like to be overtaken by a Sherpa. You’re feeling strong and going well, plodding steadily up an endless snow slope, noticing the air thinning with every metre gained, when you become aware of a rhythmic whistle gaining on you from below. It’s the sound of a Sherpa breathing. You can either welcome the excuse for a rest and step to one side to let him pass, or keep going and try to hold him off because you’re going well and don’t want to be beaten. But you will be beaten. He’ll sit in your slipstream for as long as it takes for him to get bored. Then, in an explosive burst of acceleration, he’ll break new snow to get past and leave your lungs flapping in the wake of his whistling breath.

Sitting in a base camp cook tent one evening, sipping syrupy tea to the constant roar of a primus stove, I asked the old Sherpa next to me why they whistled when they climbed. There was gold in his grin.

‘Sherpa breathing,’ he said. ‘Push air on teeth. Make stronger breath.’

After a few more questions I understood what he meant. He used his teeth to create back pressure against his exhaled breath, increasing the pressure of the air in his lungs and forcing more oxygen into his alveoli. For a brief second, it had the effect of climbing at a lower altitude.

Our lungs haven't evolved to operate for prolonged periods at less than half of sea-level barometric pressure. This threshold is crossed at around the height of Everest base camp. On the summit of Everest, the air pressure is about a third of its sea-level value; which is why, should you fancy making yourself a cup of tea, your water will boil at a mere sixty-eight degrees.

A metaphor for progression

The act of breathing at high altitude is like pumping up a punctured bicycle tyre — there’s nothing to push against and it feels like you’re getting nowhere. There's a powerful metaphor here. Just as a propeller needs air or water to push against to move forward, we work better if we're up against some form of resistance. It might be personal: a parent or partner; or it might be professional: a demanding boss or a stiff competitor. And what good would a gym be if it didn't give you something to push against?

Whatever altitude we’re at, whatever time of life and whatever our situation, we go further and go faster if we have something to push against. So if there's something blocking your way forward, use it to push against. It may even get you whistling.


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