Hydration is crucial at elevation
There’s a reason people keep telling you to drink more water. It’s beyond a platitude — hydration is critical to feeling your best, especially at elevation.
Summit County has some of the nation’s most rugged high terrain and boasts some of the most amazing sights, but to see everything takes work. At high elevations, especially above 8,000 feet, your body works harder to get the same amount of oxygen as it does at sea level. At high elevation, the body receives 30% to 50% less oxygen with each breath than it does at sea level.
The work is that much harder for those who don’t acclimatize to the high elevation before adventuring. The human body is an amazing machine, but it has its limits. It won’t magically get used to being at high elevation; it needs time for certain internal mechanisms to accommodate the pressure and oxygen changes.
The low pressure means less oxygen filling the lungs with each breath, requiring more breathing for the red blood cells to pick up the same amount of oxygen.
The increased respiration at elevation causes the lungs to dry out, as the low humidity and dry air forces the lungs to compensate by producing their own moisture to keep the tiny air passages functioning and able to absorb oxygen from incoming air.
That same physiological response also causes more moisture to be lost through the skin. The Gatorade Sports Science Institute — yes, it is a real place that does actual research — points out in a study it sponsored that sweating also increases at high altitude. The study, titled “Hydration and Aerobic Performance: Impact of Environment,” makes several such observations about performance at elevation.
“… Sweat rates can also be elevated while performing strenuous physical work in high-altitude, cold environments, due to high radiant heat loads and wearing heavy clothing or equipment,” the study said. “When body water loss exceeds 2% of body mass, aerobic exercise performance can be impaired.”
There’s another somewhat unpleasant reaction to exercise at high elevation — increased urination. The body tries to retain sodium and fluids in the body by storing them in the kidneys, which have limited capacity.
With more red blood cells needing to do extra work to carry oxygen, there are also more cells carrying waste products and filtering them through the kidneys. The total added work causes more urination, which slows you down and can be quite unpleasant if you insist on “keeping it in.”
Exacerbated by elevation, dehydration has a measurable impact on performance, even at sea level but especially at elevation.
“(Another study) found that aerobic exercise performance when (dehydrated) at sea level was impaired by 19% compared to that when (properly hydrated) at sea level,” the GSSI researchers said. “Furthermore, aerobic exercise performance declined by 11% when (properly hydrated) at high altitude and 34% when (dehydrated) at high altitude.”
It’s important to remember that these factors at elevation affect other mammals the same as humans — sometimes even more. If you notice your dog drinking more water and peeing more often after coming up to Summit County, that’s perfectly normal. Make sure they’re drinking often and getting frequent potty breaks; their bodies are working just as hard as yours to get used to ambient conditions.
Finally, along with maintaining your own health, Summit County urges visitors to maintain the area’s precious environmental health by avoiding the use of plastic water bottles and other single-use containers by bringing their own water bottle.
Free water filling stations are available around town — check out visitor/tourist information offices — or pop into a local restaurant or business and ask for a top-off. Aside from getting the reload on life-blood, you’ll also have a chance to meet and maybe get to know one of Summit’s many friendly locals.
As you go up in elevation, hydration becomes even more important.
Free water filling stations are available around town — look out for visitor/tourist information offices — or pop into a local restaurant or business and ask for a top-up.
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