I recently returned from Boulder, Colorado where the sun shines 300+ days per year (lesser-known fact). The weather is actually surprisingly temperate there. Cooler nights and warm days are pretty common to the Arid Steppe Climate Zone that they’re in. Nevertheless, many professional athletes flock to Colorado year-in, year-out. Why’s that? Altitude Training.
Altitude: Less Oxygen or Less Air Pressure?
Aside from being a gorgeous state that really brings you back to center with its immersive nature, the altitude plays a crucial role in their training. You’ll often hear a lot of people say, “There is less oxygen at altitude.” The reality is, the oxygen level itself remains the same at 20.95%. However, the air pressure drops, the higher you go from sea level. What does this mean for the human body? Well, given that I’m not a scientist, I can really only give you my rudimentary, “Explain like I’m 5” answer.
From my understanding, with lower air pressure, an individual from sea level will need to breathe more frequently and more deeply in order to deliver more oxygen-carrying blood to the tissues (red blood cell count will increase over time). It can take up to a couple months to acclimate to altitude and even then, you will likely never perform at the exact same speed as you would at sea level. That’s not bad though, if you live at altitude and race at sea level, you’re going to rip it. Your results will be limited not so much by your lungs, but by your muscles at that point.
For the purposes of this post and this trip, I spent a week between 5,280 ft (Denver – “The Mile High City”) and up to 7,310 ft (While hiking the Chautauqua Park trails in Boulder). These are not extreme altitudes by any stretch, considering people climb 14,000 ft peaks (known as 14’ers). That said, coming from sea level, I could definitely feel it upon exertion. I did a bunch of research before leaving and I wanted to share the core pro-tips with you if you’re looking to mix in some exercise when you’re well above your normal elevation.
My Best (Altitude) Practices:
WATER: Stepping off the plane and waiting outside for the Light Rail at Denver International, you can definitely feel the air being “thinner.” In Colorado, as with other Arid Steppe climates, there’s very low humidity in the air, I’m talking <20% humidity.
It’s a lot easier to get dehydrated, so the number 1 tip I have is: drink water! For reference, I drank just over a gallon of water each day I was there. Of course, there’s such a thing as too much water, but this was the right amount for me in between the climate and exercising.
Donuts might not be complex carbs, but Voodoo Donuts is a “must-visit.”
2. COMPLEX CARBS: With your body working harder in new terrain / atmospheric pressure, complex carbs will allow you to maintain energy levels and let your body use oxygen as efficiently as possible under the new surroundings.
3. TIME: Before attempting to exercise at high elevations, I would absolutely recommend that you spend a day or two at an “intermediate” elevation. For example, a lot of visitors to Colorado, especially in the winter will fly from sea level to Denver (5,280 ft) in the morning, drive up to Breckenridge (9,600 ft), and hit the slopes in the early afternoon, the highest ski-lift at Breckenridge tops out at 12,840 ft. Not a good move.
Even if you’re not going to extremely high elevations, give yourself time. When you see the beautiful surroundings Colorado has to offer, you feel this urge to want to be physically active. For me, even when I rode BCycle in Denver on some of the hills, I definitely felt more winded than I would have been on a hill of that grade/length in NYC. After a couple of days, I felt fine on the same hill(s).
4. MODULATING EFFORTS: If you’re like me, you want to record things on Strava when you travel. After all, it expands your heat map, and the elevation profile has a certain “cool” factor to it when the scale is showing numbers in the 5.2k+ range. We all want to chase PRs and showcase our fitness to our followers. That being said, forget the average pace here. The constraints that altitude puts on your performance is very real.
Unless you’re a pro athlete, working with coaches and physicians, don’t push the limit. Stop, enjoy the scenery, take some pictures, etc… You will have a much better time than doing too much, and feeling symptoms of altitude sickness.
5. SUNSCREEN: The sky really is bluer in Colorado – it’s not just your mind playing tricks. In theory, you’re physically closer to the sun than you would be at sea level. I learned that the atmosphere at altitude has harsher UV rays that increase by ~6% in intensity for every 1,000 ft that you climb. Wear your sunscreen, reapply at regular intervals, and wear chapstick with SPF in it! Your lips will be dry from the low humidity – trust me, you don’t want them dry and burnt!
BONUS Tip: Afer scouring forum after forum, I learned that a lot of high altitude hikers will actually take Advil (Ibuprofen) several hours before a significant climb. The consensus seems to be that even before you arrive at altitude – if you’re coming from sea level – you can take Advil to lessen some of the symptoms.
There are also prescription altitude sickness drugs (I.e. Diamox) out there, but some of the side effects vary from mild: carbonated drinks taste off, to potentially disastrous: vertigo (last thing you want while exercising on a mountain range). If you’re interested you can check out the following link to the Ibuprofen study.
Historically, I didn’t think I was susceptible to altitude sickness. I hadn’t even thought about it when I would go on ski trips with my family when I was a kid. Though, last year when hiking above 9,800 ft in Rocky Mountain National Park, I got a mild pounding headache that went away after I descended. Granted, I hadn’t drank enough water while driving up from Denver. Wasn’t aware of eating complex carbs for fuel for climbing at altitude, etc… There were too many variables to pinpoint, but once I started researching, I figured – let me give it a try. Given that I was by myself on the trip, I’d rather be safe than sorry.
“Previous studies have shown that ibuprofen can lower the risk of headaches associated with altitude sickness, but Lipman and his colleagues found that it does much more. “At altitude, there is something called the zone of tolerance, or the ‘altitude glass ceiling’ above your head where you can still tolerate the thinner air. Ibuprofen can increase the amount of space above you by increasing the altitude at which your body is now tolerant to your environment,” he says.
Its effects aren’t permanent, however, and Lipman recommends that anyone trying ibuprofen on their next climb should start by taking 600 mg (that’s three over-the-counter tablets of Advil) several hours before going up, and then giving themselves at least 24 hours off of the drug before taking it again prior to making another ascent. That gives their bodies time to acclimatize to the new elevation and, he says, ‘in a sense reset the barometer to see if your body is in balance to the new altitude.'”
Another thing to remember is that Altitude sickness can affect anyone and scientists can’t yet say with certainty what makes one person susceptible and another not. Someone who is extremely fit can develop it, whereas, someone who is primarily sedentary won’t. The biggest thing to remember is to take the precautions, but don’t let it psyche you out too much. Truly, after 4-5 days, I had zero trouble hiking up the Flatiron 1 & 2 trail, which was rated as “Hard” by All Trails.
Hiking back down was a different story – ended up taking a social trail as opposed to a park sanctioned one (wasn’t aware) and long story short, it got progressively steeper, I lost traction and I slid down ~15 ft with road rash galore, a lost Garmin watch (replaced it with a Fitbit Ionic which I’m LOVING so far), and a break in my big toe to show for it.
Healing up now -3 weeks since the break, but using this time to work on (non-weight bearing) upper body in the gym. The podiatrist told me I’m going to have to wait 6-8 weeks before I can start cycling again (original estimate was 8-10 weeks, but it’s healing well), especially cyclocross. I truly didn’t realize how crucial the big toe is for balance and gait. Doing the best I can to respect the recovery process. I’ll be back at it before I know it. The goal is to finally race cyclocross next year! I plan to document my journey – it’s so crucial to have attainable goals on the horizon, to make you feel like you’re actively working towards something!