Altitude is much like elevation only it refers to the distance measured above a specific planetary point, and in most places, this is the distance above sea level. So if we live at the sea, how do we train for high altitude?
Getting technical about O2 and altitude
At sea-level, the concentration of oxygen in the air is 20.9% and the atmospheric (barometric) pressure is 1= 101 kPa (760 mmHg). The higher we go above sea level, the lower the atmospheric pressure becomes which means that although the oxygen concentration is still 20.9% the oxygen molecules are further apart. At 2500m, the standard barometric pressure is 76 kPa (570 mmHg). How does that affect humans? Simple, the lower the air pressure the easier it is for oxygen to enter our vascular systems. The higher we climb, the harder it is to get oxygen into our blood. So at 2500m there is 75% of the oxygen available at sea level. At the summit of Kilimanjaro
at 5895m there is 49%, much the same as at Everest Base Camp
and and at the summit of Everest only 33%.
So how do we train for altitude?
High altitude is often considered to be anything above 2400m and unless you can physically train at that altitude or higher for an extended period of time, it is really difficult to get your body ready for a high altitude trek or climb, short of investing in an altitude tent for training.
Island Peak or Imja Tse
The amount of oxygen consumed by your body is directly proportional to the amount of work or exercise your body is performing. This can be measured by your VO2 max. A gentle walk requires a certain amount of oxygen. Increase the speed or elevation of your walk and your body requires more oxygen. If you sprint as fast as you can your body consumes an even higher amount of oxygen until it reaches its maximum limit, which is your VO2 max. Everyone’s VO2 max is different and is determined by age, gender, lifestyle, fitness, genetics etc.
So the first thing is to aim to increase your VO2 max. If you are unfit, start slowly with walking and then build up speed. Then start with intervals of jogging until you can build up to running. Most people can achieve a 15% improvement in VO2max after 2 to 3 months of training on a regular basis. Once you are fit, start doing high intensity training (HIT). This means doing spurts of high intensity exercise interspersed with lower intensity exercise. How long you do each interval of HIT for is something that varies from person to person. Remember too, that there is a natural drop in ones VO2 max of 2% for every 300 m elevation above 1500 m, so starting with a higher VO2 max before you head out on your climb gives you a head start.
In total you should aim for 3-5 times of training per week for a minimum of 40 minutes per session at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.
Kilimanjaro Top of Baranco Wall
Secondly, add to this the important part – long distance hill walking with a pack or stair climbing at least once a week as well as lots of squats and lunges for strength training. And all of this should be done for a good 3 months before your climb.
The third thing, is to learn to breathe faster and deeper. The former helps to decrease the level of CO2 left in the lungs and the latter, to increase the amount of O2 that you breathe in. At altitude, both are imperative.
So in short, strengthen your legs, cover long distances and get fit. How your body will cope once you are at altitude is unpredictable. All you can do is to prepare where you can. What you need to do once at altitude, is for another article.
Note: I am neither a physical instructor nor medical practitioner and anyone engaging in any high altitude trek should consult with their doctor first, to ensure that they are fit and healthy to start with.
by Debra Bouwer
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