Work It Out: Become a better athlete at altitude |

Work It Out: Become a better athlete at altitude

Greg Ruckman of Breckenridge skins to the top of Peak 8 during the 23rd Imperial Challenge in 2014. The storied event (and most likely multi-year champion Ruckman) return this season on April 23, the same as closing weekend.
Sebastian Foltz / Summit Daily file photo |

Many people have many different ideas about what is considered high altitude. Is it above your hometown? Above sea level? Above the Mile High City?

For the purposes of exercise, altitude is any location 5,000 feet or higher above sea level. (In other words, Denver is a perfect venue for altitude training.) When you’re above that level, there is less oxygen, so your lungs have to work a lot harder to keep the body fully oxygenated. This prevents your body from suffering due to a lack of oxygen, which can cause you to pass out.

When you are at altitude, you will breath faster and deeper than if you were at sea level because your lungs are working harder to keep the blood filled with fresh oxygen. As a result, you might feel a little lightheaded when you exercise at a higher altitude, especially if you aren’t yet acclimated. This means your body will produce more blood than normal to make sure all of your vital organs can get properly oxygenated — the key to maintaining its homeostasis.

Benefits of exercising at altitude

When you exercise at altitude, your body has to work even harder than it would at sea level, which in turn means you burn more calories and will be hungrier after the workout. Not only do you burn more calories, the body also learns to utilize all the oxygen it receives much more efficiently. This helps the body deliver proper oxygen to the muscles, joints and ligaments you’re using.

Once you get fully acclimated to altitude training, your lungs will work harder and have a greater air capacity than they would at sea level. This is a result of your body learning how to take in more oxygen and utilize it effectively and efficiently. When you are fully acclimated to altitude training, you will see that any training you do below 5,000 feet will become a lot easier than normal — and your body will not know how to fully respond to the oxygen-rich air.

Struggles with acclimation

When you start training with less oxygen, you will experience something called “oxygen hunger.” This is your body’s natural response to not having enough oxygen, which can cause you to: hyperventilate, have a headache, feel exhausted or notice a tingling sensation in your fingers and toes.

Oxygen hunger also causes something called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, a condition familiar to high-intensity athletes. DOMS is an unusual bodily phenomenon, when lactic acid is belatedly released into the muscles you’re exercising. This causes you to feel sore two to three days after an extremely intense workout. There is nothing to fear or worry about with DOMS — it is a natural response to working out at altitude.

Benefits of altitude training

When you are exercising (and even when you aren’t), your body knows how to utilize all the oxygen it receives in order to do more activities than it normally could before it gets too tired.

Once you get acclimated to altitude (above 5,000 feet), your body will have to work harder to get the same workload. But, when you are below 5,000 feet, you will have to work two to three times harder to get the same benefits you find from exercising at altitude. Your body will use all of the water it has more efficiently and effectively as to make sure the body stays within homeostasis.

Once acclimated, however, you will realize that your body and your life will be far better and you will live a happier, healthier life at altitude.

Trent Johnson is a personal trainer certified through the National Association of Fitness Certifications. As a trainer and runner, he has years of experience training people of all abilities, from high-level athletes to Average Joes who just want to find better fitness.

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