Training in Routt County: the effects of exercising at altitude
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Vacating to the mountains is both exciting and humbling for sea level athletes who look to maintain their exercise routines during the Fourth of July holiday.
Traveling to high altitude, classified as 5,000 feet or higher, can have a variety of effects on the body. Before heading out for your daily jog or bike ride, it’s important to know why your body responds the way it does to altitude and what can be done to help with the side effects.
How the body works to get oxygen at altitude
The body uses oxygen to break down sugar and produce energy.
Athletes already work to maintain what’s called a high VO2 max level, or maximum oxygen uptake. The higher the VO2 max, the better the body is able to take up oxygen to produce energy.
Traveling to altitude decreases that VO2 max level, making it harder to go through this process.
According to Dave Grinnell, a physical therapist and board certified clinical specialist in orthopedics at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, oxygen’s partial pressure decreases at altitude. This makes it harder for gas to diffuse into their bloodstream. To make up for it, people will breath faster or heavier to try to take in oxygen.
“If you’re not adapted to take it in to utilize it, a training effect of up here is that after exposure the kidney release hormones to stimulate production of red blood cells to carry more oxygen to your tissues,” Grinnell said. “When you’re living in high elevation, then heading back down you can train at higher intensity without detrimental affects of increased ventilation. You can be more efficient.”
Peak performance isn’t obtained at altitude for anyone, which is the mentality behind the live high and train low mentality. People who live at altitude full time have bodies that learn how to use oxygen more efficiently, so they train and perform better at sea level than the native sea level dweller.
“Heading back down you can train at higher intensity without detrimental affects of increased ventilation,” Grinnell said.
Combatting the effects of increased breathing rate
The lack of oxygen limits the intensity of exercise because people enter what’s called their lactate threshold sooner. The body produces lactate when there isn’t enough oxygen to produce energy during intense exercise.
That lactate threshold, or level of intensity it takes for the body to produce lactate instead of utilizing oxygen, decreases at altitude. Your body is more desperate for energy production since the resource it uses to produce it has depleted.
The problem with overproduction of lactate is that it makes you nauseous or sick. Grinnell said that being aware that you need to slow down the pace is important at altitude.
One of the most important things to do to combat the increased breathing rate is to hydrate. People lose hydration through their breath. In addition, as you take in air from the outside world, the body humidifies it in order for it to be more easily absorbed. As a result, when breathing increases, these two factors dehydrate the body at a much faster rate.
“Listen to your body and take breaks,” Grinnell said. “You’ll feel your heart pounding way harder because of the reduced oxygen content the body is taking in and delivering to the tissues.”
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