Is It Normal to Get Winded When Climbing Stairs?

An abrupt transition from walking to climbing will tax any body. Leigh Trail/Shutterstock

We've all been on the 11th step. Some of us just spend a little longer there than others — teetering mid-stairwell and clutching that handrail like it's the only thing keeping us from a long, painful tumble back to the bottom.

Do you press on? Or take a moment to give those heaving lungs a chance to catch up? Or is it time to call for an emergency airlift?

The thing about climbing stairs is it can be so difficult to know when being out of breath is normal — or a sign of impending collapse.

Keep in mind that everyone gets winded, even doing simple things they've done many times over. There's even a fancy scientific term for it: exertional intolerance.

As CNET reports, a staircase represents a dramatic change of pace for a body that's used to locomoting along a flat surface. Suddenly, things go from happily horizontal to taxingly vertical — and a body isn't quite prepared for the change in strain.

Everything from your heart rate to countless muscles are abruptly pressed into service.

Your body screams, flex those glutes! More oxygen! And somewhere around the 11th step, you find yourself teetering, breathless and wondering if this is where it all ends.

But be assured, it happens to everyone — even on much shorter climbs. The body basically started cold and went directly into a short, but relatively intense aerobic routine.

"You're introducing a new variable very quickly," Joe Holder, a running coach and trainer, tells Health.com. "You go from resting to doing something very quickly that's typically under 10 seconds. That means you're going to be in an oxygen-depleted environment, and then have to go back to normal; your body takes a second to catch up."

There's a technical term for that too: dyspnea. It's accompanied by a knotted feeling in the chest and maybe even the unsettling sensation that you're suffocating, according to the Mayo Clinic.

On its own, dyspnea would be cause for some medical alarm. It could suggest a lung impairment like asthma, bronchitis or even lung cancer. It could also be caused by anxiety. A little dyspnea on the staircase, on the other hand — assuming that staircase isn't located in an unhealthy environment — is par for the course.

And there are ways to make stair climbs a little less taxing on the body. Considering we get winded by the sudden change from leisurely walking to strenuous climbing, you might think a little warm-up might help. But who has time on the way to the office for a little stretching and rope-skipping at the bottom of the stairwell?

Rather, consider your overall conditioning. If you frequently find yourself winded on staircases, it's probably a good, old-fashioned case of being out of shape.

Woman climbing stairs.
Stairs get a lot easier to climb as our muscles get more conditioned. siam.pukkato/Shutterstock

"In general, if you're deconditioned, you might have a little shortness of breath when you climb stairs," Sadia Benzaquen, a pulmonologist and professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine tells Self.com. The more you exercise, the more efficient your muscles get. As a result they won't bellow for quite so much oxygen when they're being flexed. Also, importantly, they won't produce so much carbon dioxide, which contributes to fatigue.

That's not to say getting winded on staircases is always something to brush off. There may be all kinds of other factors contributing to shortness of breath. Which is it's important to make sure your lungs really aren't the problem. It's the fine and dangerous between feeling short of breath — and feeling out of breath.

"Before you start exercising, it's not a bad idea to go to your primary care physician to make sure your heart and lungs are fine," Benzaquen explains. "Then, go ahead and go to the gym."