There is no speedy shortcut to acclimatize to high altitude. We all want to hit the trail and get to great heights as soon as possible, however, to get up to high ground feeling good takes patience. So, what is going on and how do we acclimatize?
What’s going on?
Moving up into higher elevations asks a lot of your body, as the lower oxygen volumes and often drier air stresses out your system. Your body is working hard: heart rate is increased, more red blood cells is being created, kidneys are filtering fluids, and breathing is increased. Awareness and understanding of altitude sickness is important for health and safety.
All your systems are working overtime once you move above about 8,000 feet. Lower oxygen triggers the body to bump up kidney function and increase urinary output. Kidneys also release erythropoetin, a hormone that triggers bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. More red blood cells are critical to enable the body to carry more oxygen in the blood. Less ability to tolerate lactic acid means you will likely feel slightly more fatigue and muscle soreness after activity.
What to do?
Acclimatization should be done over the process of several days. Each time you gain serious elevation, stay there for a day or two. Sleep is critical to allowing the body to repair and adjust to challenging settings. Altitude gain timeframes should include full, regular sleep sessions. Along with regular sleep, regular hydration is key. High elevation air is often drier than sea level; even without doing strenuous exercise, your body is losing water simply due to the drier environment. Alcohol hinders hydration efforts and should be avoided or accompanied with plenty of water.
Regular nutrition is also important. Plenty of carbohydrates, low salt, and in regular small meals with plenty of water. Iron is a critical component to blood, and as you are producing more blood cells, be sure you have had an iron-rich diet before you came to altitude, and it continues while you are up in the mountains.
Some coaches advocate for heat training to simulate the stress of high altitude during athletic endeavors. Extreme heat triggers the same plasma production that you undergo when at high elevations, so you can “feel” the process and prepare your body and mind. This can mimic the feelings of working out while you acclimatize to high altitude.
It can take up to a week to simply get the body’s fluid systems up to speed when you are at higher altitudes, so schedule some rest and travel days early on in your high altitude trip, take rest days, and be flexible with your expectations.