Low-Altitude Training for High-Altitude
Recently, as climbing gyms have boomed, more and more climbers
from low elevation areas, are seeking higher grounds and traveling
to much higher elevations to climb. Mountains like Orizaba (18,404ft)
in Mexico and Mount Rainier (14,411ft) in Washington State are
at altitudes where the oxygen pressure is low enough to limit
aerobic performance, which is necessary in climbing. Training
methods and the problems associated with this type of altitude
are of great importance for climbers in these areas because they
have to train at such low elevations. Fortunately, there are ways
to prepare for this type of excursion in order to maximize performance,
limit the danger of high altitude disorders and sicknesses, and
increase the enjoyment of the climb.
One's aerobic performance can best
be measured in terms of his or her VO2 max--the maximum amount
of oxygen that one's body can consume. The amount of oxygen consumed
by your body is directly proportional to the amount of work or
exercise your body is performing. For example, walking up a mountain
at a certain speed requires a certain amount of oxygen. Increasing
the speed of walking requires even more oxygen. When you are walking
or running as fast and as hard as you can, you are likely consuming
the maximum amount of oxygen that is possible for your body, i.e.,
your VO2 max. The higher a person's VO2 max, the harder or more
intense they can work. Conversely, altitude lowers a person's
VO2 max which then lowers work capacity.
The problem of oxygen consumption is
compounded at altitude because of the reduced pressure of oxygen.
Walking up main dome on a 30 degree slope at 3 mi/hr with a 40
pound pack is easier than walking up to the summit of Mount Rainier
on a 30 degree slope at 3 mi/hr with a 40 pound pack. You are
doing the same amount of work, but since your body's ability to
deliver oxygen to the working muscles at altitude is lower than
at sea level, you are working closer to your maximum capacity.
This is where training comes in. Everybody is born with the ability
to reach a certain VO2 max. One person may be able to reach a
certain VO2 max but another person, no matter how hard they train,
will never be able to reach a comparable VO2 max. If you are genetically
able to reach a certain VO2 max, and you don't train, your VO2
max is not as high as it can be. Therefore, by training to increase
your VO2 max, a certain amount of work like hiking up Mount Rainier
on a 30 degree slope at 3 mi/hr with a 40 pound pack is easier,
and the maximum amount of work you can do is increased. Proper
training, directed at increasing your VO2 max, makes it is easier
to climb and you can climb harder.
The best type of training is highly
aerobic activities like running and cycling. You need to start
out slow and short if you have not trained before. Eventually
work your way up to doing one of these exercises 3-5 days a week
for 30min to an hour at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate (mhr).
Calculating your maximum heart rate can be estimated by subtracting
your age from 220. For example, a 24 year old person will have
a maximum heart rate of 196 beats (220-24) per minute and 70-85%
of this is 137-167 beats per minute. This general calculation
is a good start, but if you are serious about training a fitness
and health facility can more accurately estimate through a maximal
heart exercise test measured by a heart rate monitor or electrocardiogram
your maximum heart rate. While doing this aerobic type of exercise
you can throw in one minute intervals of higher intensity in order
to push your limits. Also, you can supplement this exercise with
your regular weight and climbing workouts.
Another good training technique is
to, at least one day a week, do an exercise that resembles what
you will encounter while climbing. This can include hiking, or
running stairs with your pack on. When training for a climb, one
approach is a regular weekly work out consisting of running 3
days, lifting weights 1 day, running stairs 1 day, sport climbing
1 day, and resting on the last one. Generally you should allow
a minimum of three months in order to get the most out of your
training, but even longer if possible. All of the normal dietary
and hydration concerns are the same as with any training program.
On the Climb
One of the biggest adjustments is after the months of training
in the flatlands have passed and the big climb arrives. As soon
as you arrive at any base-camp over 10,000 feet, the acclimatization
period begins. Coming from any lower altitude, you will need to
rest for 2-5 days at this higher altitude in order to maximize
your acclimatization period. Any longer than this and you may
actually detrain from lack of activity. Typically, waiting the
full 5 days is best for your performance, but the time is highly
dependent upon the person because some people have more difficulty
in acclimatizing than others. An acclimatization period is necessary
for your body to make adaptations that will help your body deal
with the altitude better.
A key factor when climbing at altitude
is remaining hydrated. Your body's natural response to altitude
is to dump fluid by urinating, plus the dryer air speeds evaporation
from your breath. It should be noted that consuming alcohol prior
to or during your climb also has a dehydrating effect. These factors
will make your ascent more difficult and increases your risk of
the different types of mountain sickness.
There are many medical problems and
issues associated with altitude, such as acute mountain sickness,
pulmonary edema, and cerebral edema, can be better dealt with
and prevented by having a higher VO2 max and remaining hydrated.
See our section on Health and higher Altitudes.