Altitude Preparation for Lowlanders

On Friday, January  we held an in-store Skype session with ultra running coach & altitude training expert Chantelle Robitaille. We learned a ton and thought we should share:

1. Some fun facts about oxygen

  • At higher elevations, the air doesn’t have “less” oxygen–the relative amount of oxygen in the air always remains the same, no matter the elevation, at 21%.
  • Here’s what makes it feel like it’s so hard to breathe:
    Increased elevation—>decreased pressure—>”thinner air”—>less actual oxygen compared to sea levels (More about oxygen levels at altitude from the Center for Wilderness Safety.)
  • VO2 max decreases 3% per 1000ft of elevation gain at or above 5000ft

Less oxygen available for breathing means less oxygen available for muscle tissues. This is obviously going to affect your physical performance unless you take preventive measures.

2. How to get ready for an adventure at altitude

  • Are you able to spend some time at a higher elevation before your race? This will help you to cope mentally with the strain of altitude and to know how it affects you in advance.
  • Heat training triggers similar physiological adaptations as training at altitude. One strategy: Use a dry sauna for 20 minutes. After 10 days of saunas, bump to 30 minutes a day. (You don’t get something for nothing though.)
  • Interval training. Train harder at sea-level than you would work at elevation. Your VO2 max might be decreasing, but your perceived rate of exertion will remain the same and you’ll be able to keep a decent pace on the mountain.

3. Plan your arrival carefully:

Option 1: AMS symptoms don’t kick in until 24-48 hours of exposure to altitude, so you could schedule to arrive as close to the race start as possible.

Option 2: Arrive a few days in advance, knowing you might not feel great and need more rest than usual.

Option 3: Arrive 1-2 weeks early for a race between 6,000 to 10,000 ft. And 3 weeks early for a race at 10,000 ft & above.

Option 4: Full 6-week acclimatization with staged ascents. No more than 1,000 ft per day.

4. Eat, drink, rest on arrival

  1. Hydrate when you first arrive & increase your water intake overall
  2. Carbs are crucial at high altitude: a) most efficient fuel while maintaining blood glucose; b) hastens recovery; c) improves blood oxygenation, which alleviates AMS symptoms
  3. Small frequent meals
  4. Check iron levels to support EPO production (add supplements, spinach, meat, if needed)
  5. Avoid alcohol, but don’t give up your caffeine
  6. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help alleviate any  symptoms from ascending too quickly

5. All about Acute Mountain Sickness

There are three illnesses associated with high altitude: Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Additionally, some athletes may experience a sore throat and/or bronchitis as a result of increased breathing.

» Twenty percent of people ascending to more than 8,000 ft quickly will develop AMS

» 40% will experience it at elevations over 10,000 ft.

» Over 16,000ft. more than 80% will develop AMS.

Watch for: headache, nausea, fatigue and light-headedness. It’s short-lived—lasting 2-7 days. You should not ascend to sleep at even higher elevations if you’re already feeling it.

✔ Being physically fit does not decrease the risk of AMS.

✔ You can’t screen for likelihood of AMS.

✔ Prior history of AMS is the single best predictor of future susceptibility.

✔ Sustained physical exertion early in the altitude exposure substantially increases the likelihood of AMS and how severe it is.

Ignoring AMS and continuing to ascend to even higher elevations may lead to HAPE & HACE, which (though unlikely) are potentially fatal. Pay attention to your symptoms!

» 1/3 of people cannot acclimatize

» It takes 6 weeks for full acclimatization

» 10 1/2 – 3 weeks out (hard rock)


Dragons Back Stage Race! Not as high as it looks, but definitely technical!

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