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How to Train for High Altitude

How to prepare for the big climb
March 11, 2014
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High-altitude training is important for proper fitness and to avoid health risks like high-altitude pulmonary edema.

You've signed the dotted line and in a few short months you're strapping on your boots and heading "into thin air." Whether it is climbing Mt. Everest or Mt. Evans, you're going to need to improve your high-altitude fitness, the question is, how?

Let's start by clearing up one of the more common misunderstandings when it comes to high-altitude training. There is no process by which one can naturally acclimatize, or adjust to high altitudes, that doesn't involve physically being at altitude.

In other words, unless you spend the days leading up to your trip living in the high mountains, and then take a helicopter directly to your objective, there is nothing you can do to physiologically prepare for the climb. It is a natural process; you can't rush it or take short-cuts (unless you buy a high-altitude chamber, which in my opinion totally misses the point). Oh and another thing, whether or not your body is actually capable of adjusting to high-altitude is mostly genetic. Sorry, it's not for everybody. Blame it on Dad.

(One more thing- whatever you do, don't be the guy or girl who wears one of those oxygen deprivation masks while on the stair stepper. Just don't.)

Training for high altitude

Here are some practical tips on how to train for high-altitude:

1. Go long.

Unless your objective involves intense technical climbing or speed ascents, your best bet is to spend the bulk of your high-altitude training logging miles on your feet. Slow and long is the name of the game. However, a little speed hiking in your local mountains when you can won’t hurt either. The advantages of long trail runs are two-fold; you build endurance and mental toughness while improving your high-altitude fitness.

2. Intensity makes the difference.

While at altitude you are reduced to a walking lung. To prepare, add at least two high-intensity workouts a week to build your lung capacity. Stay light with the weight and move fast!

3. Breathe.

Learn how to control your breathing while under intense physical distress and practice techniques such as pressure breathing. Believe it or not, some of the best high-altitude mountaineers are yogis.

4. Get your mind right.

Mental training as it relates to high-altitude training goes far beyond the "teach yourself how to suffer" mentality. You need to learn and understand what happens to your body at altitude so you can truly understand the difference between discomfort and danger. It's a fine line.

5. System checks.

While training, get in the routine of periodically asking yourself "what does my body need right now?" Understanding what your body is telling you is crucial to success at altitude. It can help you avoid life-threatening conditions like high-altitude pulmonary edema.

One last thing: as Damian Hall said in his Epic Trail on Everest Base Camp, it's vital to not take things too quickly and let your body adjust to each significant change in altitude - in fact he returned to a lower level to sleep to be on the safe side. Frustrating, but absolutely necessary when dealing with altitude and acclimatization.

Photo: Olga Danylenko/Shutterstock.com
Photo: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com

  • The Lone Grainger

    I was pretty excited to read this article, but was very disappointed after reading it. The only thing I think anyone can take away from this article is the only way to train for high altitude is by training in high altitude. There is no way someone could read this article and know how to train for high altitude like the title implies. How about some elevation numbers, like how high you should be training at based on the height of the peek you will be climbing. Maybe some common feelings or signs you should watch for if you are at a higher elevation then your body can handle. Or recommended lengths of time and/or miles you should log at a specific elevation before going higher. Sorry Merrell but find some writers who actually care about the subject they are writing about and put out quality content not just to get clicks in hopes someone might end up buying something.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Chambers

Activities
Mountaineering, Ultramarathons, Trail Running, Hiking
Favorite Gear
Proterra Mid Sport Gore-Tex
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