Why You Get Breathless When Climbing Stairs, Even If You're Fit?

I’m sure you’ve experienced this.

You need to grab something from upstairs and run up there taking 3 or 4 steps at a time or you’re running late for work and speed walk up the escalator 2 steps a time, only to find yourself out of breath and breathing heavy.

What gives?

You work out regularly, try to play sports a few times a week and walk more when you can. So why are you huffing and puffing like an out of shape couch potato?

Fortunately, it’s actually quite a simple explanation and it has nothing to do with you not being as fit as you think you are.


What happens is, as you go from either being stationary or walking casually where your heart is beating at a relaxed pace to suddenly walking or running up a flight of stairs your heart rate suddenly increases in order to try and meet the new oxygen needs to fuel this activity.

Your body takes a moment to adapt and responded by making you breathy more heavily in order to counteract the oxygen shortage you’ve just created by your sudden burst of activity.

The reason this shortness of breath is so pronounced is because in your day to day life, you might workout or do some form of activity regularly but most likely you don’t climb stairs too often, at least not at speed.

Then when you do need to climb some stairs you’re going from gentle activity to vertical lunges where you’re not only are you lunging forwards but also upwards.

All this activity is also made possible by the biggest muscle group in your body, the legs. As they’re the biggest they’re also the most oxygen hungry, so when you engage them by climbing a flight of stairs, your body shuttles oxygen rich blood to them to fuel your activity.

This leaves you a little short and your huffing and puffing is your body’s way of restoring the oxygen debt and bringing things back to normal.

Interestingly, another reason that a flight of stairs can leave you breathless is because of a hardwire evolutionary response in the brain. According to Nathan H. Lents, Ph.D. writing in psychology today, us humans subconsciously slow our breathing as we approach a task that requires our concentration i.e. running up a flight of stairs in the office (you wouldn’t want to trip).

This coupled with the fact that your energy output is suddenly increasing as you begin to climb the stairs, your breathing slows down and creates a larger oxygen deficit, leaving you breathless and panting like a dog on a warm day.

Nathan suggests taking big breaths the next time you approach a set of stairs you need to dash up, then continue taking big breaths as you climb the stairs, this should see you arrive without all the huffing and puffing.

Alternatively, you could incorporate additional sets of lunges or step ups in your gym routine and if that’s not your speed just remember the above next time someone questions your fitness having just climbed a flight of stairs.

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