Altitude Effects

Posted on November 6, 2010. Filed under: altitude training, get in shape, getting in shape, gyms in peabody, personal trainer in ma, personal trainer in medford, personal trainer in peabody, The Get In Shape Girl |

While I was in Arizona I was doing a lot of exercising – running & lifting.  As I was running up the runway in the neighborhood I found myself so out of breath I had to walk a moment.  Then it dawned on me that my dad had told me the runway is at exactly 4000 feet above sea level.  That explains why after running for only 10 minutes I felt winded.  So I thought this would be a great topic for my blog.

Now, why exactly does altitude affect the cardiovascular system, even of someone who is a conditioned runner?

The function of the lungs is to replace carbon dioxide in the blood with fresh oxygen.  The amount of oxygen is actually less at higher altitudes.  It’s a significant change from 50 ft above sea level to 1500 ft, or 1500 ft to 5000 ft.  So the body has to work harder to replace the oxygen, thus naturally hyperventilating, which is why I felt winded.  This also means the heart has to beat faster to get blood to the brain & muscles, which is why I felt like my heart was beating out of my chest!  All in all this means that the heart is having a hard time getting oxygen through the body.  Unless someone is trained to perform exercise at an elevated altitude then it’s normal to feel this WHILE EXERCISING.

So how do you train your body to adapt to the heightened altitude to be able to perform?

To make a very long story short every person has a VO2 max.  A VO2 max is the max amount of oxygen that your body can consume.  The higher a VO2 max, the harder or more intense you can perform.  BUT altitude lowers each person’s VO2 max, thus making you unable to perform as hard.  However, the good news is that you can train your VO2 max, thus making it easier to train at high altitudes!!  Have I lost you yet?

How can you train to increase your VO2 max?

With high intensity interval training.  Different professionals recommend different techniques here, but the basics of HIIT are to work at 70% of your heart rate max for 60 seconds 3 times a day, then increase that to 5 times a day, then more and more until you reach about 12.  Then you work with 80% of your heart rate max for 60 seconds…. then 90% of your heart rate max.  The best way to do this is through running or spinning, or even throwing intense intervals of cardio exercise during a regular cardio workout.  One way I do this with my clients is in the middle of a circuit have them bust out 10 burpees.

So how do football teams primarily based in sea level cities such as Tampa Bay or San Diego perform at Mile High Stadium in Denver?
It just occurred to me that that is certainly an advantage the Broncos have on their opponents when facing them at home!  They do the HIIT on the reg.  They make their way to the higher ground 2 – 5 days early to adjust as much as possible.  They stay hydrated.  And some athletes may even train or rest in chambers pressurized to have a low level of oxygen.

I was just on the Pike’s Peak Marathon homepage where participants set out to complete 26.2 miles ascending 6,000 vertical feet, then descending the same amount.  On their training page they recommend getting out to the site 2 – 5 days in advance & staying well hydrated but most importantly taking it easy, even if each individual hasn’t had the opportunity to train at higher altitudes.

I guess for myself I’ll just keep my runs short & be happy to have the opportunity to train here because it will make sea level seem easy.  And when i feel winded & need to rest, just listen to the body!!

Kyra Williams,

The Get In Shape Girl


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One Response to “Altitude Effects”

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This was an interesting post Kyra. I always new altitude affected our ability to breath, but never really thought about it in terms of exercise.

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