Special Considerations When Exercising at Altitude
By Robert Courtney ATC, Mountain Vista High School
Colorado is a very unique place to live. There are many different climates all with various elevations within the state. Colorado has an elevation range of about 11,000 feet from 3,315ft at the Arkansas River to 14,440 at the highest peak. People not only live at all of these elevations (Leadville is the highest town in Colorado at 10,220ft), but they play sports and exercise at them as well. Traveling up in elevation and exercising can have a big impact on sports performance for both elite athletes and recreational weekend travelers. Not only can altitude have an impact on performance, but anyone traveling to higher altitudes has a risk of developing Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS. While both of these things can ruin a competition or a weekend of skiing, there are some strategies to prevent AMS and poor performance at a high altitude.
How does Altitude Affect Performance?
Higher elevations have less atmospheric pressure. This means that there is less oxygen in the air for us to breathe. The human body compensates for the lack of oxygen by increasing the resting heart rate. The body must do this in order to make sure that the muscles and organs are receiving the necessary amount oxygen that they need to function. When exercising, muscles need more oxygen because they are burning more fuel. Exercising at a higher altitude than an athlete is used to will create a greater oxygen deficit in the body. This means that the body has to burn much more energy in order to perform at the activity level the athlete normally does. This oxygen deficit can also lead to Acute Altitude Sickness.
What is Acute Altitude Sickness?
Acute Altitude Sickness is also known as Acute Mountain Sickness. Altitude sickness is caused by a rapid gain in elevation. It can occur in any person and may actually have a greater effect on elite athletes because their muscles utilize more oxygen. Symptoms of altitude sickness include: headache, loss of appetite/nausea, insomnia, shortness of breath at rest or exercise, and dizziness. Rare but more severe symptoms include: coughing, confusion and, in very serious cases, the lungs can fill with fluid. Factors that can increase risk of AMS are dehydration, aerobic exercise, fast increases in elevation, previous history of altitude-related illnesses, and respiratory infections.
What to Do to Prevent Altitude From Impacting Performance:
Drink Plenty of Water and Eat Extra Calories:
When you are at greater elevations your heart and body are working harder than usual to spread oxygen throughout the body. This essentially means your body is burning more calories even at a resting level. By staying hydrated and eating a little extra you are making sure that your body has the energy it needs to function properly. Make sure you bring extra snacks to refuel during your sporting activity, and make sure you bring more water than you think you will need.
Acclimatize as Much as You Can Before Heavy Exercise:
The more time you spend at higher elevations, the more your body will adjust to the lower oxygen levels. Arriving just one day before you participate (more if possible) and just relaxing and walking around town will give your body a better chance to adjust to the altitude before the heavy exercise. Avoid getting up early to drive to the base of a fourteener and hiking it as fast as you can. Instead, try to get there a day early and camp overnight or sleep in a hotel (more sleep also helps with acclimatization).
Allow For Greater Breaks During Exercise:
The lack of oxygen in higher elevations will put a greater stress on the body during exercise. When you do not give proper recovery time during exercise, you are at a greater risk for developing altitude sickness. Make sure you allow yourself to rest for longer periods than you are used to. Drink extra fluids and try to fully catch your breath.
If You Begin to Feel the Symptoms of Altitude Sickness, Stop Exercising:
If you begin to feel the symptoms of AMS, such as a headache or nausea, stop your activity. Catch your breath, drink some water and eat a light snack if you can. Typically symptoms will resolve after a few minutes if exercise is stopped or slowed. If symptoms will not resolve after a few hours, or if the symptoms worsen, consider traveling back to lower altitude to resolve them. Descending in altitude is the best treatment for altitude-related illnesses.
The Mountains are a Beautiful Place. Make Sure You Enjoy It!
Colorado is an amazing place. If you get an opportunity to participate in a sport at a mountain town, or if you are just exploring the great outdoors, make sure that the elevation doesn’t get the best of you, and most importantly, make sure you are having fun.