How to Conquer the Challenges of High Altitude Training

Altitude is the ultimate test of grit and resilience. When you're up there, every breath counts, every step is a challenge, and the environment is unforgiving. But that's why you're here, right? To conquer those peaks and push your limits. MTNTOUGH is here to guide you through it. 

Let's break down what you need to know and how to prepare. Starting with a short introduction to the challenges of altitude and altitude training, and two practical techniques you can use to properly prepare for the elevation change.

Key Takeaways

  • Altitude training can lead to physiological adaptations that improve athletic performance at lower altitudes.
  • Being aware of the body's reaction to reduced oxygen levels and implementing proper nutrition and hydration are vital during altitude training workouts.
  • Employing effective training techniques at real or simulated high elevations can maximize benefits while minimizing the risk of altitude sickness.

The Basic Manual for Understanding Altitude

The higher you go, the tougher it gets. It’s all about oxygen, or a lack thereof - reduced oxygen levels at higher altitudes impact your body’s exertion rate.

As a simple chain of cause and effect it looks something like this:

  • Cause - Thin Air: At altitude, the air is less dense. This means fewer oxygen molecules with every breath you take. Your body craves oxygen, especially when you're pushing it to the limit.
  • Effect - Muscle Performance: Oxygen fuels your muscles. Less of it means your muscles can't work as hard or as long. That's why tasks that feel easy at sea level can feel like a marathon at 10,000 feet.

Thankfully, the human body is a marvel. Given time, it can adapt to lower oxygen levels by producing more red blood cells. 

But this takes time, and often more than a few days. Some aren’t able to make it that long though, especially if they come down with altitude sickness. 


Coping with Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness isn't just a buzzword; it's a real threat. It hits hard, and it can hit everyone - yes, even the fittest mountain athletes. But, with the right knowledge and precautions, you can increase your odds of tackling the mountains without it tackling you back. The first step is to know what you’re up against.

Altitude Sickness: An Ailment of Adaptation, Not Fitness

You read that right. Even if you’ve just won the Boston Marathon, your fitness won’t shield you from altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is the result of poor acclimatization response; it’s not about poor fitness. That’s why it can hit anyone. 

  • Definition: Altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a medical condition that occurs when ascending high elevations too quickly. It’s nature's way of reminding you that climbing too quickly into thin air comes with serious consequences.
  • Severity: AMS is a spectrum, ranging from mild symptoms all the way to fatal outcomes. Mild symptoms can rapidly transform into severe conditions, like high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) - both can become deadly within 24-hours without proper attention. 
  • Know the Symptoms: Headache, dizziness, general fatigue, and shortness of breath are trademark signs of altitude sickness.

Taking the Right Precautions

Altitude sickness is no joke. But the first sign of shortness of breath doesn’t necessarily mean you need to descend right away. 

Instead, you need to be proactive and take the right precautions while keeping the warning signs top of mind. Doing so may avoid AMS altogether, or give you a fighting chance to get your altitude sickness under control before it escalates. 

At a minimum, you’ll need to approach the ascent correctly, fuel your body appropriately, and know your limits. 

  • Climb Slow, Stay Safe: The best defense? A slow ascent. Rushing to the top is a bad idea. Give your body time to adjust to the thin air. If you can, spend a day or two at an intermediate altitude before hitting the peak. 
  • Hydrate: At altitude, water is your best friend. Drink up, even if you're not thirsty. Dehydration can make AMS symptoms worse. 
  • Listen to Your Body: Headache? Dizziness? Fatigue? These could be early signs of AMS. If you feel off, stop and monitor. If symptoms persist, descend. It’s that simple, and there's certainly no shame in it.

The best way to adapt to altitude and defend yourself from AMS is to spend time there even before you start your journey; ideally two weeks for full adaptation. 

But if that's not feasible, there are training techniques that can help. Which is exactly what we’ll cover now.

So before you even think about hitting those high-altitude slopes or peaks, you need a game plan. Let’s build one together.

Impact of Altitude on Performance:

Altitude doesn't just change the view; it changes the game. But, as you’ll see in the next section, your fitness at sea level can alter your energy expenditure at higher altitudes, meaning you'll require less oxygen. This is the premise of submaximal exercise, a crucial component for high performance at high altitudes.

This may be the only mercy altitude shows. But don’t make the mistake of interpreting it as an invitation to lower your guard. It requires incredible commitment and toughness to endure. And even then, you’ll still face the unusual physiological drag of this great equalizer.

Here’s how altitude will drag your performance down when you’re up in the mountains:

  • Oxygen Levels Drop: At higher altitudes, the air gets thin. Less oxygen in each breath means your body has to work harder to fuel your muscles. This can seriously affect your endurance, but training for it can minimize the impact.
  • Adaptations Kick In: But here's the silver lining. Train at altitude, and your body starts producing more red blood cells, improving oxygen delivery to your muscles. This can give you an edge when you return to sea level. 
  • VO2 Max Takes a Hit: Your VO2 max, a measure of aerobic capacity, decreases as you go higher. It’s a reflection of your body’s ability to use oxygen. It's like trying to run at full tilt with a hand over your mouth. But with the right training, you can minimize this drop.
  • Lactic Acid Build-up: At sea level, your body's pretty good at clearing lactic acid, a byproduct of hard exercise. At altitude? Not so much. At high altitudes, lactic acid builds up faster in your muscles. This is the burn you feel during intense activity. But again, training can help your body adapt and push through it.

In essence, altitude is a double-edged sword. It presents challenges, but with the right training, dedication, and mental toughness to overcome them, you might just find your performance at sea level gets a serious boost.

Altitude Training Techniques:

If you’re up for the challenge, the best way to adapt is to spend time at the same altitude before your trek begins, ideally two weeks for full adaptation. Unfortunately, that’s not always an option for everyone.

If you’re unable to land at your destination two weeks early, there are still steps you can take to prepare. 

You’ll need to focus on two key training techniques: submaximal exercise and cardiovascular adaptation.

Submaximal Exercise

In its simplest form, submaximal exercise involves building strength and fitness at sea level to reduce energy exertion at altitude. What does this mean?

The fitter you are at sea level, the less energy you'll need to exert at altitude, meaning you'll require less oxygen. 

For instance, a person who can squat a heavier weight with ease at sea level will exert less energy at altitude than someone who struggles with a lighter weight.

Cardiovascular Adaptation

This is not just about supplying more blood to muscles but also about building mitochondria in muscles, which helps in utilizing the oxygen efficiently at the cellular level. The more cardiovascular work done at sea level, the better the muscles can utilize the reduced oxygen at altitude.

Training That Translates at High Elevations

Not sure where to start your training for submaximal exercise and cardio adaptation? Well, if you want to get MTNTOUGH ready, start with our Minimal Gear (or Bodyweight) On-Ramp programs, or consider the Minimal Gear Foundations program. Each is designed to help you find your footing before tackling more challenging programs, and each includes elements designed to help you brave a higher altitude.

Take advantage of MTNTOUGH’s 14-day free trial, which will give you more than enough time to make sure it’s the right fit for where you’re trying to go - we’re bullish it will do the trick. Whether you take the On-Ramp or the Foundations path, either will guide you through a wide range of techniques to build your overall fitness, including interval and strength training (amongst others) - these are ideal for submaximal exercise and cardiovascular training.

Interval Training:

This isn't your average gym routine. We're talking about pushing your body to its limits, then letting it recover, and doing it all over again. This helps your body get used to working hard with less oxygen. 

The idea behind interval training is to push your body into an anaerobic state by maxing out, either on effort or time completed. HIIT and Circuit training are the twin pillars of interval training.

  • HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training): Short, brutal bursts of activity. This isn't a walk in the park; it's a sprint up a mountain. HIIT increases your cardiovascular capacity and makes every breath count.
  • Circuit Training: A dynamic rotation through targeted exercises. It's a full-body blitz. Circuit training enhances muscle endurance and keeps your heart rate elevated for maximum calorie burn.

Strength Training:

Altitude challenges aren't just about breath; they're about muscle. Squats, lunges, push-ups – these are your tools to conquer the mountain. Build that power and endurance to tackle any terrain at any height.

You’re certainly familiar with strength training, the concept of using resistance to build muscular strength and endurance. But, how closer are you to the concept of progressive overload?

Progressive overload is a principle of strength training that involves gradually increasing the weight, frequency, or number of repetitions in your strength training routine. This challenges your body and allows your musculoskeletal system to get stronger.

So as you start your strength training, don’t go all out from day one. Gradually increase your intensity. Let your body adapt, grow, and get ready for the real challenge. 

Wherever your altitude training takes you, remember the two most effective techniques mentioned: submaximal exercise and cardiovascular adaptation. 

These methods focus on building strength and fitness at sea level and enhancing the muscles' ability to utilize oxygen efficiently - both improve your performance when you’re far above sea level.

Reaching MTNTOUGH Heights

At MTNTOUGH, we’re not in the business of sugarcoating. We give it to you straight.

Altitude? It's a beast, and we know it inside out. Training for it isn’t any easier.

Altitude training is all about pushing your limits, understanding your body, and preparing for the challenges ahead. Through techniques like Submaximal Exercise and Cardiovascular Adaptation, one can be better prepared for the demands of high altitudes.

Whether you're training in Flagstaff or the Badwater Basin, the key is dedication, knowledge, and the right guidance.

The summit’s just a checkpoint. It's the grit, the grind, and the guts that count. Want a taste of our no-nonsense training? Dive in with our 14-day free trial

No fluff, just tough. It’s exactly what you’ll need when you face those peaks head-on.