How to Reap the Benefits and Stay Safe while Training at High-Altitude
May 25, 2023 | Christian Schauf
How to Reap the Benefits and Stay Safe while Training at High-Altitude

For years, training at high altitudes has been popular among athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike. The unique environmental conditions found at high altitudes offer several advantages that can enhance your physical performance and overall well-being, effectively making you perform even better a lower elevations, no matter your sport or endeavor. 



Increased Oxygen Efficiency: One of the key benefits of training at high altitudes is the physiological adaptation to reduced oxygen levels. At higher elevations, the concentration of oxygen in the air decreases, creating a state of hypoxia. While this may initially seem challenging, your body responds by producing more red blood cells to improve oxygen-carrying capacity.  By training in this oxygen-deprived environment, your body becomes more efficient at utilizing oxygen during exercise. This increased oxygen efficiency can lead to enhanced cardiovascular endurance and improved aerobic capacity. When you return to lower altitudes, where oxygen levels are higher, you'll experience a significant performance boost. So, by embracing the thin air, you can elevate your overall fitness levels.

Enhanced Endurance and Stamina:  Training at high altitudes can also benefit athletes looking to improve their endurance and stamina. The reduced oxygen availability forces your body to work harder, leading to adaptations that enhance your ability to sustain physical effort over extended periods.  When you engage in high-intensity workouts at altitude, your muscles adapt by increasing the production of mitochondria—the powerhouses of the cells responsible for energy production.

As a result, your muscles become more efficient at utilizing energy sources, such as glycogen and fat, to fuel your activities. This improved energy metabolism translates into better endurance and stamina, enabling you to push through longer training sessions and achieve peak performance during competitions.  Translation - it’s harder at elevation, and getting used to that harder effort makes everything else easier and more attainable. 

Accelerated Recovery and Adaptation:  Apart from improving your performance during training, high-altitude training can also accelerate your recovery and adaptation processes. The lower oxygen levels at high altitudes stimulate the release of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that regulates red blood cell production. This increase in red blood cells helps deliver oxygen more efficiently to your muscles, aiding in their repair and recovery. 

Furthermore, high-altitude training triggers an increase in the production of growth factors, such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). These growth factors promote the development of new blood vessels, improve tissue repair, and facilitate the removal of metabolic waste products. Consequently, your body becomes better equipped to recover from intense workouts and adapt to the demands of training, reducing the risk of overuse injuries and optimizing your performance gains.

Training at high altitudes can be an effective strategy for improving performance, but it's also essential to be aware of the potential risks and challenges associated with this type of training. While high-altitude training can offer numerous benefits, it also poses certain dangers that should not be overlooked. 



Altitude Sickness:  Altitude sickness, also known as acute mountain sickness (AMS), is a common risk associated with training at high altitudes. It occurs when your body fails to adapt quickly enough to the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations. Symptoms of AMS may include headache, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping.  If left untreated, altitude sickness can progress to more severe forms such as high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which can be life-threatening.

It's crucial to acclimate gradually to high altitudes and be aware of the signs of altitude sickness.  This is why many times, when you’re climbing a mountain, you are encouraged to ‘hike high, sleep low’, allowing your body to acclimate.  

Here in Park City, we often see people feel the effects of altitude sickness - which is often remedied by a night in a hotel in Salt Lake City, where the elevation is several thousand feet lower.  If that isn’t a possibility, hyperbaric chambers can provide relief as well.  If symptoms persist or worsen, it's important to descend to lower elevations and seek medical attention.

Dehydration: Another risk associated with training at high altitudes is dehydration. The lower atmospheric pressure and drier air at high elevations can accelerate fluid loss from your body through increased respiration and evaporation. Furthermore, at higher altitudes, you may have a reduced sensation of thirst, leading to inadequate fluid intake.

Dehydration can negatively impact your performance and overall well-being. It can lead to decreased blood volume, impaired thermoregulation, decreased cognitive function, and increased heart rate. To mitigate the risk of dehydration, it's crucial to prioritize hydration by drinking plenty of fluids, even if you don't feel excessively thirsty. Additionally, limiting caffeine and alcohol consumption can help prevent further dehydration.

Overtraining and Overexertion: Training at high altitudes can push your body to its limits, and if not managed properly, it can increase the risk of overtraining and overexertion. The reduced oxygen availability places additional stress on your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, requiring them to work harder to meet the demands of exercise.  Engaging in high-intensity workouts without allowing sufficient time for recovery and adaptation can lead to overtraining syndrome.

Symptoms of overtraining syndrome include persistent fatigue, decreased performance, mood disturbances, and increased susceptibility to illness and injury. It's crucial to incorporate adequate rest days, listen to your body, and adjust your training intensity and volume to prevent overtraining and promote optimal recovery.  One of my favorite techniques is simply paying attention to my Garmin Fenix watch.  It provides tips on recovery, performance, and sleep based on your personal biometrics.  A valuable tool if you plan on playing hard in the mountains!

While high-altitude training can offer substantial benefits, it's vital to be aware of the potential risks involved. Altitude sickness, dehydration, and the risk of overtraining are among the key dangers associated with training at high altitudes. To ensure a safe and effective training experience, it's important to acclimate gradually, stay well-hydrated, and listen to your body's signals.