How To Adapt To Altitude For Winter Sports - Altitude Acclimation
As much as I hate to say, summer is winding down and it’s time to start thinking about those cold winter sports. More specifically, it’s time to start thinking about skiing! Last week several mountain passes in Colorado got their first dusting of snow!
But before you think about ski-specific fitness, think about the altitude. Unless you live up at altitude year ‘round, you’re probably going to feel its effects when you go to the mountains. And for those of you that live outside Colorado, even coming here to the front range (Denver-area elevation is 5,000 feet, or a mile high) can affect you.
Altitude causes problems for people because the air is less dense. That means every time you breathe, you get less oxygen than you would at sea level. It’s really a very subtle form of suffocation.
Altitude can definitely make you feel off. Fatigue, headache, nausea and general unease are the most common symptoms. The best way to describe altitude sickness is like a bad hangover. Nausea, headache, feeling lethargic, loss of appetite and dehydration are common symptoms. (And this is why it’s a good idea to avoid alcohol when you are at altitude!)
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to help your body adapt to altitude.
Ways To Adapt
The first and best way to get adapted to altitude is to spend some time there! While this may or may not be feasible for everyone, quick short trips to any elevation over 5,000 feet will stimulate the body to produce more of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO for short.
This hormone is produced in the kidneys and drives red blood cell production. You want more red blood cells because they carry oxygen. More red cells means you’ve got better oxygen carrying abilities, and this is the key to feeling better up high.
Hiking is of course ideal because you’ll get a great lower body workout and you can gain some good elevation at altitude. This is a surefire way to get your heart and lungs ready for the challenges of exercise at elevation.
2. Rule Out Anemia
Next, make sure your blood looks good and that you aren’t anemic. Anemia is a lack of red blood cells. It’s worth getting this quick and inexpensive test before ski season to make sure you’re not fighting an uphill battle against altitude adaptation.
Being anemic will make it very difficult for you to do much of any athletic activity. The most common causes of anemia are lack of iron and sometimes vitamins B12 and folic acid.
Regardless, its important to find out the cause and treat it. Don’t wait though, because it can take a while to fix nutritional anemia to the point where you have adequate red cells. Get tested now - don’t wait until the mountains open for skiing!
Hydration. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a hundred times. If you’re not adequately hydrated and you go up to altitude, you’re going to have problems.
Part of what happens at altitude is you’ll begin to urinate more. A lot more. This will compound dehydration if you’re already low on fluids. It’s never a good idea to get dehydrated, but being up high in the dry cold air and the lack of drive to drink because it’s cold will give you a big headache and make you feel nauseous.
And not just plain water – you need electrolytes in the water to help hold it in your tissues. Plain water will go in and run right out of you unless it’s “sticky” with electrolytes.
Keeping blood sugar at a good level is important. When people are at altitude, it’s easy to skip out on meals because you’re out having fun, it’s maybe not as convenient to eat a quick snack or bar out of your jacket because they’re frozen, and appetite is generally decreased.
Getting low blood sugar will make you feel terrible up high. The same nutrition rules apply at altitude as anywhere else. Make sure you eat, and don’t skip meals, as that will compound any altitude symptoms.
Start working on these things now - don’t wait until the week before opening day. As a rule, adaptation takes time. Allowing your body a few weeks to adapt will ensure that you feel strong and energetic when it’s time to hit the slopes.
Here are some basic guidelines for how you should eat when you're at altitude.
Have fun up there!