The positives and the perils of high altitude training

Danielle Allard, PSP Fitness Instructor

Heading to the mountains? The Canadian Rockies are absolutely stunning!

For many they are not only a vacation spot, but an opportunity to train at higher altitude, connect with nature, and immerse themselves in the mountains’ majestic beauty. Here are some important considerations for exercising at higher altitude.

The higher altitude can pose a risk due to the lower amount of available oxygen in the air. When exercising at higher altitudes, defined as higher than 1,500 metres, these conditions increase the demand on our bodies. Whatever aerobic activity you’re doing – skiing, running, biking, hiking – you can expect a higher heart rate, heavier breathing, increased thirst, and possibly headaches and light-headedness compared to doing these same activities at a lower attitude.

Overall, the activity will feel a lot more taxing compared to when you’re at home in Cold Lake, where we sit at approximately 544 metres elevation.

Serious athletes often live and train at higher altitudes in order to reap the physiological benefits. This includes an increase in the hormone that produces red blood cells, which will increase maximal oxygen uptake and offer a competitive edge. This advantage can last at low altitude for up to two weeks.

Interestingly, the fitness and research world knew little about the effects of altitude training on human performance until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, elevation 2,240 metres. There, athletes in mainly aerobic events saw underwhelming results. These Olympics inspired more research into altitude training.

If you’re thinking of heading to the mountains to train for the weekend, consider that it takes our bodies approximately three weeks to acclimatize to extreme environmental changes, including altitude. Therefore, serious athletes who train in the mountains for a week or a weekend will likely not yield that many benefits.

If you’re heading to the mountains to enjoy the scenery, take leisurely hikes, enjoy the biking trails, run in a race, or if you are a competitive athlete, come prepared. The higher altitudes will likely challenge you. Those who stay and train hard enough, for long enough, may see some improvement to their overall performance.

Happy training!