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Low-Altitude Training for High-Altitude Climbing

By Ryan Taylor - March 14th, 2002

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Altitude and Performance
Recently, as climbing gyms have boomed, more and more climbers from low elevation areas, are seeking higher grounds and traveling to much higher elevations to climb. Mountains like Orizaba (18,404ft) in Mexico and Mount Rainier (14,411ft) in Washington state are at altitudes where the oxygen pressure is low enough to limit aerobic performance, which is necessary in climbing. Training methods and the problems associated with this type of altitude are of great importance for climbers in these areas because they have to train at such low elevations. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for this type of excursion in order to maximize performance, limit the danger of high altitude disorders and sicknesses, and increase the enjoyment of the climb.

One's aerobic performance can best be measured in terms of his or her VO2 max--the maximum amount of oxygen that one's body can consume. The amount of oxygen consumed by your body is directly proportional to the amount of work or exercise your body is performing. For example, walking up a mountain at a certain speed requires a certain amount of oxygen. Increasing the speed of walking requires even more oxygen. When you are walking or running as fast and as hard as you can, you are likely consuming the maximum amount of oxygen that is possible for your body, i.e., your VO2 max. The higher a person's VO2 max, the harder or more intense they can work. Conversely, altitude lowers a person's VO2 max which then lowers work capacity.

The problem of oxygen consumption is compounded at altitude because of the reduced pressure of oxygen. Walking up main dome on a 30 degree slope at 3 mi/hr with a 40 pound pack is easier than walking up to the summit of Mount Rainier on a 30 degree slope at 3 mi/hr with a 40 pound pack. You are doing the same amount of work, but since your body's ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles at altitude is lower than at sea level, you are working closer to your maximum capacity.

Training
This is where training comes in. Everybody is born with the ability to reach a certain VO2 max. One person may be able to reach a certain VO2 max but another person, no matter how hard they train, will never be able to reach a comparable VO2 max. If you are genetically able to reach a certain VO2 max, and you don't train, your VO2 max is not as high as it can be. Therefore, by training to increase your VO2 max, a certain amount of work like hiking up Mount Rainier on a 30 degree slope at 3 mi/hr with a 40 pound pack is easier, and the maximum amount of work you can do is increased. Proper training, directed at increasing your VO2 max, makes it is easier to climb and you can climb harder.

Let's look at training for this incredible trip that you have been saving for. The best type of training is highly aerobic activities like running and cycling. You need to start out slow and short if you have not trained before. Eventually work your way up to doing one of these exercises 3-5 days a week for 30min to an hour at 70-85% of your maximum heart rate. Your maximum heart rate can be estimated by subtracting your age from 220. For example, a 24 year old person will have a maximum heart rate of 196 beats per minute and 70-85% of this is 137-167 beats per minute. While doing this aerobic type of exercise you can throw in one minute intervals of higher intensity in order to push your limits. Also, you can supplement this exercise with your regular weight and climbing workouts.

Another good training technique is to, at least one day a week, do an exercise that resembles what you will encounter while climbing. This can include hiking, or running stairs with your pack on. When training for a climb, my regular weekly work out consists of running 3 days, lifting weights 1 day, running stairs 1 day, sport climbing 1 day, and resting on the last one. Generally you should allow a minimum of three months in order to get the most out of your training, but even longer if possible. All of the normal dietary and hydration concerns are the same as with any training program.

On the Climb
Several months of training in the flatlands have passed and the big climb is arriving. As soon as you drive to basecamp on Orizaba (approx. 10,000ft), the acclimatization period begins. Coming from such a low altitude, you need to rest for 2-5 days at this altitude in order to maximize your acclimatization period. Any longer than this and you may actually detrain from lack of activity. Typically, waiting the full 5 days is best for your performance, but the time is highly dependent upon the person because some people have more difficulty in acclimatizing than others. An acclimatization period is necessary for your body to make adaptations that will help your body deal with the altitude better.

Another important factor when climbing is remaining hydrated. Your body's natural response to altitude is to dump fluid by urinating, plus the dryer air speeds evaporation from your breath. It should be noted that consuming alcohol prior to or during your climb also has a dehydrating effect. These factors will make your ascent more difficult and increases your risk of the different types of mountain sickness.

Many problems associated with altitude, such as acute mountain sickness, pulmonary edema, and cerebral edema, can be better dealt with and prevented by having a higher VO2 max and remaining hydrated. A more complete discussion of these illnesses can be found in a book called Medicine for Mountaineering 4th ed., edited by James A. Wilkerson, M.D., published by the Mountaineers 1992. This of course is not all of the information available on altitude and training for altitude, but I hope it is a good overview.


Comments

mountain climbing

I am a woman in my 60's who has had the dream of climbing Mt. Annapurna in Nepal. I have recently seen the Michael Pallin show on PBS and am wondering whether it is advisable.
I have some knee and ankle issues and I just had toe surgery.
I do about 4 classes of Zumba. 2 classes of Pilates, l weight class and I try to get in 10 - l5 miles a week on the treadmill.
I am wondering whether I am foolish or could consider some training. I realize that there are problems in Nepal now and that is also why I hesitate. It's not just the air or lack of hygiene. A few years ago I went to Peru and when we got off the plane in Cuzco, I did not require any oxygen.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

Posted on May 14, 2012 - 2:09pm
by Rochelle Lebhar

Pick A Different Mountain

Rochelle,

While I can respect your desire to climb Annapurna, I would say that for someone without a lot of 8000 meter mountaineering to attempt Annapurna as their first one is foolish.

Perhaps pick one of the other 8000 meter peaks, or even attempt one of the less technical 7 summits (Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, or Aconcagua). I'm sure the whole point of doing something like this is to test your limits, I assure you that on Annapurna you will be short roped, and pulled up the Mountain by a Sherpa. Many world class climbers have summit-ed Annapurna only after multiple attempts.

Good Luck.

Lou

Posted on August 4, 2012 - 10:09am
by Visitor

Intervals

Do intervals, be they running or biking, a couple of times a week and throw in a day or two of lactate threshold training. Also squats and a tough ab workout three times a week is something I find beneficial. But, ultimately, acclimatization is needed.

Posted on March 19, 2011 - 5:57am
by yakov

Altitude Training at Sea-level with altitude simulation equipmet

Hello all,

My name is Matt--I work with a NYC-based company called Hypoxico (www.hypoxico.com) and we specialize in low-oxygen, altitude simulation equipment that can be used with a mask, sleep tent, or training chamber; I'm not here for sales purposes per se, but to inform each of you (and everyone else who reads this) that their is a very effective method to improving performance at altitude and sea-level through the use of simulated altitude training. Over several days, the body naturally creates red blood cells (RBC) and greatly improves its ability to utilize oxygen (capillary growth, increased o2 absorption rates) thus enhancing stamina and endurance and properly preparing the body for high-altitude ascents.

Our systems are used both for sports performance enhancement and for pre-acclimatization to altitude and are used by numerous gold medalists and pro athletes (cyclists, triathletes, runners especially) as well the US Military's Special Operations Command.

Our Managing Director, Brian Oestrike, is currently attempting a speed record record of Mt. Denali in under 23 hours. And he performed this feet on Mt. Aconcagua in under 2 days. We currently have numerous clients currently preparing for the Leadville 100 with our systems.

While i do work for the company, i can honestly say that we receive testimonials on a weekly basis from athletes that have improved their endurance and as a result, their performance as well as stories from mountaineers telling us how their climbing partners had AMS at 14k while they continued on to 20k+ with no symptoms of AMS.
If anyone would like any additional information regarding hypoxic training or about our equipment (and mountaineering, protocol development services), please feel free to email me directly at mformato@hypoxico.com.

Thanks much and safe climbing!

Matt Formato
Director of Business Development
Hypoxico Inc.
19 W 21st STE 503
New York, NY 10010
www.hypoxico.com

Office: 212.972.1009 ext 112

Posted on June 2, 2010 - 2:40pm
by Matt Formato

Hypoxer

Yeah its great that people can drop tons of money to help them get higher but I think the real question is how do you do it with out going broke? I was on the crew (rowing) team in college and after one season my family took a vacation to Yosemite and I was able to run up to the top of Half Dome with no problems while only two days earlier I was at sea level, literally. Full body exercises such as rowing and cross-country skiing help maximize VO2 max because you are using all of your body rather than just half as with running or cycling. The great thing about rowing is you can't breath anyway because half the time your knees are in your chest. If you row while breathing only through your nose you feel like you might pass out but it does wonders for training your body to use oxygen more effectively. and then there is always the power lung but, I've never tried it.

Posted on September 4, 2010 - 7:58pm
by Visitor

heart beat rate

I am sixty six and have climbed quite a few peaks including five in Colorado all over fourteen thousand feet. I did this with an irregular heart beat. since that time i have had my heart shocked and put back in rthym. My question is should i be able to perform better now?

Posted on February 6, 2010 - 5:18pm
by VisitorBob Marshall

military application of high altitude training

I'm preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. I want to know how to train to prepair my body for the Afghan mountain regions. At low altitude and being from the midwest, I'm concerned. Any advice is welcome.

Posted on December 6, 2009 - 9:01pm
by Lt. Ryan

Low oxygen intake training

I use this type of training for kickboxing & Mixed Martial Arts as after a few rounds you body requires more oxygen to function. If you train with less oxygen you can go on for longer! Two ways to do this are: Gas mask training, if you can get your hands on a gas mask this is great because it regulates how much air you can breath in, making it so that you breath less oxygen in turn making the air thinner ( like altitude training!) Another one is using a snorkel, it is not as effective as the gas mask but it stops you from gettin the maximum about of air!

Posted on December 2, 2009 - 8:42am
by Visitor

leadville

to Alan, the only way for you to train for Leadville is to arrive as early as possible to the racesite and give yourself a chance to acclimate at least partially. Also, you need to start the race at a pace that is slower than normal. I run the 100 every year and low-landers always go out fast and then die later on.

Posted on June 16, 2009 - 7:45am
by Visitor

Leadville 100 Bicycle Race

I will be competing in August for the Leadville 100 bike race. Race will start at about 9000 ft, and top off around 12-13000. I live in Connecticut, and need some tips on what I can do during training. I read in Dean Karnases book that even breathing through a straw during exercise or non exercise is prudent.

Any more info would be great...Thanks

Posted on February 20, 2009 - 8:38am
by Alan

Altitude training

I read the Low- Altitude Training for High Altitude climbing with interest but I was hoping for some more specific guidence. I will be doing a climb to raise money for Bowel Cancer in June; we will be climbing Ararat in eastern Turkey. We won't have a great deal of time to aclimatise and all my training is being done at sea level! What dietary advise would be benificial and is there anything that could be added to the article's advice in term of training.
Thanks very much

Nick

Posted on February 2, 2009 - 10:45am
by Nick

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