High Altitude Fitness Strategies: Exercise and Diet

By Urbanaveed
9 Min Read

Hypoxic conditions at high altitudes can be fatal for most of the individuals. High altitude fitness is a good-to-go practice for beginners and even for professional hikers. The people who are already living in the mountains are naturally acclimatized. Proper acclimatization is a part of high altitude fitness. Acclimatization involves the procedures or practices to make an individual cope with hypoxic conditions at high altitudes. The partial pressure of oxygen at high altitudes (usually above 2500 meters) is 83 mmHg against the sea level, 100 mmHg.

Acclimatization practices make a person adapt to low oxygen levels and stressful conditions. Low oxygen levels can lead to acute mountain sickness which can proceed to HAPE or HACE. Read the complete blog How do hypoxic conditions affect the physiology of the body?

Following training exercises and diet makes the human body acclimatized to higher altitudes. Besides these two aspects, high-altitude fitness demands more strategies. But training exercises and diet are the significant ones.

Training Exercises for High Altitude Fitness

1. Simple Aerobic Rush

Simple aerobic exercises like walking, and running are effective for improving cardiovascular functions. Aerobic exercises enhance the oxygen uptake by the cells by providing a large supply of oxygen. These simple aerobic exercises at gradual ascents acclimatize the body for the corresponding oxygen levels. Start exercise at low altitudes, then gradually make it to high altitudes for some days. Gradual ascending prepares the body for oxygen concentration at different altitudes. High altitude fitness demands carving your body to the respective hypoxic conditions, and aerobic exercises (at varying altitudes) serve the same purpose.

2. Intense Activity in Short Bursts

Mountains are rough to climb or even more rough at higher altitudes. Such variations in the trekking demands intense muscular and mental activity. For this purpose, one must prepare his body for prolonged intense activity periods. At some points in the mountains, there is no time to stand still or take some rest. One has to complete that specific part of trekking without resting. That’s why intermittent intense activity in short bursts with rest periods is a part of training exercises for high-altitude fitness.

3. Breathing Exercises

Breathing exercises hold a pivotal position in the context of high altitude fitness. Exercises like controlled breathing or breathing in low oxygen can augment the body’s adaptation to high altitudes. Controlled breathing exercise practices holding breath for a specific interval and then releasing it. This exercise proves beneficial at high altitudes where you have to manage with reduced oxygen. Start with a short period of holding your breath and then make it to long durations gradually. Simulated hypoxic conditions like hypoxic masks or tents make this practice more influential. The body acquires the necessary adaptations to cope with hypoxia.

4. Rest Period

Resting is always crucial amidst strenuous efforts. Intense exercise in short bursts with prolonged resting periods builds up endurance capabilities. Moreover, with high altitude fitness, rest is much more important than one can assume it to be. Resting for prolonged periods at varying altitudes makes the body acclimatized concerning the heights. Resting at high altitudes is a significant part of acclimatization. The body modifies its physiology during resting periods at respective heights. Sleeping at high altitudes is one of the best strategies to make the body adaptable to that environment.

Diet for High Altitude Fitness

Besides training exercises, diet is an integral contributor to acclimatization practices. Learn how to manage dietary requirements at high altitudes.

1. Glycogen Loading

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body, especially at high altitudes. The reason why many athletes and mountaineers consider carbohydrates as the main energy source is its conversion to glycogen. Carbohydrates fulfill the glucose requirement of the body. The body stores the excess in the form of glycogen reserves. That’s why carbohydrate consumption is called glycogen loading. Glycogen stores in the muscles and liver become the primary source of energy during intense muscular activity. So, it is recommended to consume carbohydrates according to your specific limit before hiking.

2. Hydration and Electrolyte Balance

At high altitudes, increased respiratory activity and urine output can cause dehydration. Dehydration can exacerbate acute mountain sickness, causing headaches and fatigue. At high altitudes, kidneys release the Erythropoietin (EPO) factor to enhance the production of red blood cells. EPO has a diuretic effect, fostering water loss from the body. Apart from hydration, it is also mandatory to keep your electrolyte concentration in check. Loss of fluids in the form of urine or intense breathing is the major reason for electrolyte loss.

Electrolytes are integral in muscle contractions and nerve impulse transmission. Electrolytes also help retain fluid in the body. So, proper hydration along with intake of essential electrolytes like sodium, calcium, or magnesium is important. Hyponatremia is a condition when too much water intake results in the dilution of electrolytes, especially sodium. Thus, water intake should be limited, neither too much nor too low.

3. Iron and Folic acid

Iron is the central constituent of hemoglobin, an oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. It is the necessary element for the synthesis and adequate functioning of hemoglobin. At high altitudes, hemoglobin concentration should be high to carry the maximum oxygen to different tissues. Deficiency of iron can have drastic impacts on the oxygenation of body cells. Folic acid is also significant in the production of red blood cells which contain hemoglobin as the primary protein. So, for the production of red blood cells at high altitudes, stimulated by EPO factor, demands the appropriate concentrations of iron and folic acid.

Role of iron and folic acid in red blood cell production
Iron and Folic acid are the essential components of diet for high altitude fitness. The reason is their primary role in Red blood cells production. In hypoxic conditions at high altitudes, kidneys secrete EPO for red blood cell synthesis in bone marrow. Folic acid and iron are essential nutrients for red blood cells production.

4. Quinoa

Quinoa (pronounced as keen-wah) is an eriched food found in the Andean region of South America. It is a famous and nutrient-dense food in the Andes, where people live at high altitudes. Quinoa is known worldwide, containing the majority of the essential nutrients, and is best for acclimatization protocols. It contains nine essential amino acids, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, folate, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, zinc, potassium, and a jackpot of the nutrients in one food.

To Cut it Short

Exercise and diet are the most important protocols to follow for acclimatization. High altitude fitness begins with exercise that makes your body face aggressive situations. Regular exercise, both aerobic and anaerobic, at varying altitudes, is the core of high altitude fitness. Gradual increase in intensity of training exercises is the key to making a body stubborn to rough conditions. Proper electrolyte balance and hydration alleviate the severity of physiological changes. Extreme low blood oxygen levels trigger the formation of red blood cells for enhancing oxygen uptake.

Formation of red blood cells requires iron and folate in considerable amounts. For this purpose, iron and folate intake should be an integral part of acclimatization procedures. Read how aerobic and anaerobic exercises benefit the body in their respective concerns.

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Student of BSc MLT at NUMS, and Content Writer in Health, Medicine, and Wellness. Finding soothe in writing and spreading knowledge.
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