Everything you need to know to reach peak success.
Or perhaps you're just ready for an adventurous escape to the great outdoors. Whatever the reason, those mountains are definitely calling your name!
But if you're planning to get fit near the clouds—whether that's a long hike, bike ride, or rigorous run—it's important to keep in mind that a high-elevation workout is not the same beast as a sea-level one. “Elevation doesn’t care how fit you are, if you’re new to altitude changes go easy on yourself and underestimate your abilities,” says Hilaree O’Neill, the first woman to climb Everest and its neighbor peak, Lhotse, in a 24-hour period (#badass). “Understand that your performance at sea level will be very different the higher up you go.”
Why exactly does it change so drastically? “Air pressure becomes less when you climb up a mountain, and the less air pressure means less oxygen to breathe,” explains Michele Olson, Ph.D., adjunct professor of sport science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama. “This makes it harder for the oxygen-carrying red blood cells in your body to attach to oxygen, therefore much less oxygen is delivered to your working muscles, heart, and vital organs. As a result, you’ll become much shorter on breath, possibly dizzy, nauseated, and low on energy."
That said, until you get out there and give it a go, you won’t know how you personally fare in altitude. “Higher elevation can affect people differently based on many variables. Genetics, the elevation you currently live at, base fitness level, hydration status and your overall body composition (red blood cell count and presence of existing illnesses) are just some of the factors that play a role in the complexity of why some can crush at altitude and others feel crushed,” says pro climber Anna Pfaff, who is an emergency room nurse in her spare time.
However, if you're planning for a hike or run that lasts more than a few hours—think Machu Picchu or one of Colorado’s 14’ers (a mountain that reaches 14,000 feet)—you definitely shouldn't just wing it. There's a number of crucial training steps you should take, and it's important to give yourself at least five to six months to train, says O'Neill. “Even if you think you’re physically fit, the outdoor elements combined with the altitude changes will have an effect on your body and put you at risk for injury if your system isn’t used to it."
For starters, it's vital to get outside and hike on real trails, O’Neill says, not just log miles on the treadmill. “For every indoor workout you do, you should switch off with something outside.” Your workouts should range from running, swimming, and biking—exercises that are aerobic and get your heart rate elevated—to actual climbing adventures. Things like long hikes on uneven rocky terrain, biking hilly courses, skiing and any kind of stair climbing (the Stairmaster or outdoor stairs where you can do laps up and down). When you're in the weight room, remember that climbing requires more endurance than strength, so focus on using lighter weights and more reps to encourage longevity of performance rather than building muscle or power. Pfaff’s go-to training moves include squats, lunges, and core routines.
And lung capacity isn't the only thing you need to get acclimated to. If you're going to be carrying a backpack on your hike, it's important to get used to schlepping a heavy load. “Go for hikes or walks on terrain similar to what you will encounter, while wearing a weighted pack, either hiking specific or any gym-bag backpack style," says Pfaff. "Make it heavier than what you think you’ll pack the day of the actual climb.” You might get a few stares (or look totally legit), but consider wearing your climbing backpack on the treadmill, too.
It's also important to note that the biggest contributor to altitude sickness is climbing too fast. To figure out your ideal pace for the trail, practice by going for long walks with a friend who you can talk with endlessly. “Being able to talk while you walk is a good indicator of a sustainable pace that you can maintain for a long period of time,” says Pfaff.
Bottom line: There's no point in chancing it in high altitudes (we've all seen Everest, after all). But luckily, by taking the right training steps and precautions, you can totally dominate your next elevated adventure.