Olympic athletes do it to prepare for their major events, so it must be a good plan. But exercising at altitude should not be approached without some planning.
Yes, training at altitude certainly pushes your body to its full limits and gives you a significant edge when you return to sea level. Is it necessary for anyone who isn’t competing on the world stage? Perhaps not, but it is always possible that you might be interested in actually competing in an event at altitude. To know what to do and what to expect can help give you an advantage.
For example, there is an Ironman competition held in Leadville, Colorado. At nearly two miles in elevation, anyone who has never competed at altitude stands a very good chance of not even finishing the race up there.
The lack of oxygen that you will experience while exercising at altitude forces your body to work harder. Your lungs strain because there simply is not as much oxygen at 10,000 feet as there is at sea level. Most visitors notice just walking up a hill that they pant and feel their heart racing. That’s because the body has already determined that there isn’t as much oxygen as it’s used to.
Limited oxygen affects not only your breathing, but your muscles know it as well. When you spend any length of time at altitude, your body responds by making new red blood cells to increase the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood. When I first moved to altitude, the first couple of days I had to take naps because my body had expended every ounce of energy I had. The only way I could handle it was to take naps.
Staying hydrated is important because it makes the symptoms of altitude sickness much worse. If you feel headaches, nausea, and potentially swelling of the hands and feet, you could be suffering from an acute case of altitude sickness. Don’t try to tough it out. Pay attention to your body and heed any symptoms.
The best advice for doing altitude training is to take it slow. Give your body time to adjust to the new altitude and the decreased level of oxygen. Most runners say that if you pay attention to how you feel, you’ll do better than watching the clock or pedometer. Altitude training certainly puts you at an advantage when you return to sea level, but the benefits are very short-lived. It can take up to six months to fully acclimate to altitude, and you can completely lose that acclimatization within a single month.