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Friday, May 02, 2014

"How to avoid altitude sickness": Practical advice from Lorraine Moller

Lorraine Moller training at
altitude in Boulder
Colorado some time ago

I have a question about altitude sickness.

I've just decided to do the Tour Du Mont Blanc but I'm nervous about some of the climbs which go up to about 2600m.

I have been at 2200m before and never had problems but experienced pretty bad altitude sickness at 3000m.

At what height does altitude sickness become a real possibility and is there any way to manage, minimise or hopefully eliminate the possibility of getting it so my trek doesn't become a nightmare?

Thank you
Lorraine Moller replies:

Hi Gary, In reply to D's query about preparing for hikes at high altitude: I have some experience with altitude training but it has been the other way around, train high and race low. 

Since you are training at sea level and your event takes place at quite high altitudes I will attempt to make what I know relevant to your situation. 

 There are two primary limiting factors with regards to any endurance activity, muscular conditioning and oxygenation. The muscular conditioning needed to meet the requirements for your hike can be trained for adequately at sea level. However the ability of your body to meet the specific requirements of high altitude is a little more difficult as this type of training requires specificity that is not most efficiently met by training at sea level. 

The biggest challenge for your body at high altitude is the lower air pressure that makes the breathable air less dense. So for every 500 meters you climb you lose about 4% of your available oxygen and by about 3,000m you are only breathing in about 3/4 of the oxygen that you would have at sea level. However the more developed your oxygenating system is, the better you will fare and most walkers and runners can greatly improve their aerobic capacity at sea level by undertaking a simple conditioning plan of regular and variable intensity hikes, two or three challenging ones a week with hills to get the heart pumping and time on your feet, interspersed with some gentle recovery hikes. 

If you are limited by terrain, I suggest running some of your workouts to get the heart rate up and stimulate the body systems to become efficient oxygen processing units. Don't overdo it; too much has the opposite effect and gets you tired and injured, but a regular weekly cycle of workout/recovery can greatly improve your VO2 max in just a few months. 

Here's some suggestions for you from one of our recent Lydiard Coach graduates, Kathy Pidcock, who has trained many ultra and mountain runners: 

"That's always tough on transitioning from sea level to altitude. My recommendation is to do lots of hiking on as tough a trail as they can find (steep works best) and hike it with gusto. Try to get almost anaerobic for several minutes before resting then repeat the process several times. Climb with full packs, it will get them to AT (Aerobic Threshold) quicker. 

Hopefully they will have at least 2 weeks to train. If they are flying into someplace to do the hiking, I suggest they arrive just before the hike, not a week or 2 before. That's when the body begins to break down and tries to make more red blood cells for oxygen carrying capacity. That whole process can take up to 4 months. They will be more tired if their body is trying to repair AND suffering from lack of oxygen with exertion. 

I also recommend taking in foods/drinks that are high in iron to prep the blood prior to the hike. Tell them to take it very slowly on the hike, enjoy the sights, rest often and take lots of pictures and to have a fabulous time!"

A further comments from Gary: 
I would add in a sauna twice a week in the time left leading up to the expedition, as well as increase your daily intake of multi mineral salt such as Himalayan salt (such an appropriately named product!):  Heat acclimatisation boosts blood volume (meaning you have a greater sink for holding oxygen and nutrients) and you will be better able to handle and avoid dehydration which is usually experienced in the very low humidity of high altitude, even if conditions are freezing.

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