Today I discuss how you can best prepare and train for a high altitude hike if you don't live near any mountains.
High altitude trekking has captured the imagination of so many people around the world. Who hasn't daydreamed at some point of standing at the top of Kilimanjaro? Or of conquering the pilgrimage to Everest Base Camp?
But, while most of us have the opportunity to prepare physically before a hike or adventure, no matter what we do, or what experience we may have, there is always one factor which is unknown.
For the lucky few, preparing for a high altitude hike will simply involve doing a few training hikes on smaller mountains, at moderate altitude.
But what about the rest of us? Who don't have any mountains to train on? WHo doesn't have a chance of getting up high before a trip? And whose acclimatisation journey will only start the once you actually hit the trail?
Well, that is what today's podcast is all about. To give you some clear information and direction on how you can best prepare your body for a high altitude hike if you live at sea level.
Now to be clear, the strategies I talk about are definitely are not foolproof! And your chances at altitude will ALWAYS be mainly affected by the time you have to acclimatise and your genetics....
But beyond that, this episode will give you some practical information to use in your training, which might give you that extra nudge towards high altitude success.
You will learn:
So today we're talking about how to train for high altitude hiking if you leave at sea level.
High altitude hiking is something that many, many people aspire to, whether they've had dreams of their life of going up to Everest base camp, or they've always aspired to hit Kilimanjaro, or any of these big mountains, they really do hold a big appeal to a lot of people. And a lot of people have been dreaming about it, had them on their own bucket list for years, and years, and years. But one of the most common questions I hear from people is, "How do I prepare for this when I don't have any mountains around me?" Because nine times out of 10, when people ask this, people will pipe and say, "Hey, the best way to get ready for altitude is, you've got to spend time in altitude," and that makes complete sense, and is 100% true.
And that might be practical for people who live near mountains, who can go on a holiday, or go on a training hike up to a reasonable moderate altitude or something like that, but for the other half of us who don't happen to live near any mountains, or any available altitude, what can you actually be doing? So today I'm going to be talking you through what I usually recommend, what's worked for my clients in the past, and hopefully give you a really clear plan of attack, and some really clear information on how you can best prepare your body for the demands of a high altitude hike when you actually live at sea level.
Now, to start with, I want to say the reason why I'm talking about this, and the reason why I know they are practical things to talk about is, basically, I live in Sydney, which is just about one of the loudest places on earth. In Australia itself, the highest mountain we have, is about 2000 meters or something, so we have absolutely no altitude to speak of. But saying that, there's so many people who aspire to these treks like Everest Base Camp, Kilimanjaro, the Elbrus, Aconcagua, all of these things, and people regularly come to me because this is my job from day to day, and they're preparing for these adventures, but they don't have any mountains. So over the last few years, as I've been training these guys, I really, really have noticed there are some particular things you can do to help their preparation and get them over the line, and make them feel a little bit more comfortable.
The reasons why I know this works, it's quite often they'll come back to me on the treks, and more often than not, they'll say they're feeling a little bit more comfortable than people, their acclimatization was a little bit quicker than other people, and they were feeling happier to walk closer towards the front of the pack, as compared to the other people in their group. Obviously, that's not incredibly scientific, it's very anecdotal, but so far it seems to work, so I'm pretty confident in what I'm going to be saying.
Now, before I go any further, I know there's going to be something that's running through a few people's heads, which often gets thrown at me when I talk about these things. And people love to pipe up and say the words, that there's no correlation between physical fitness and altitude sickness. And this is a statement you'll see everywhere on the internet. Now, the reasoning behind this is, basically there's been a few studies, or a reasonable number of studies which have compared the differences between people who aren't really very much fit, and people who are quite highly fit, and take them up to altitude and seen what the rates of altitude sickness are. And it turns out, according to the studies, that there isn't really a major difference in between the rates between people who are super physically fit, and people who are just moderately fit. There's been nothing really shown to be the difference, and that's led those studies to conclude there's no real correlation between physical fitness and altitude sickness.
And while yes, that is true, there is one point which people miss when they go over this thing, and the fact is, that physical exhaustion is a risk factor when it comes to altitude sickness. So while if you are reasonable fit, it might not protect you more than being outrageously fit, if you're not fit enough while your on the trek, and you are getting fatigues and exhausted, it is going to put you at a higher risk of altitude sickness. So, so much of the time people miss this really, really crucial point, and so what we're going to be talking about today, is just about how you can make sure you don't reach that point of exhaustion, make sure you're as comfortable as you can in this environment. And then hopefully as you go through and you take your time acclimatizing up the mountain, and you go through all those other essentials which you should be doing while you're on the mountain, you're going to give yourself the best chance possible of having a safer acclimatization and actually getting to your end point.
So now that's out of the way, let's talk about specifics, and what can you be doing physically to prepare your body for a high altitude hike when you don't have access to high altitude.
So, number one, is aerobic capacity development. Now, aerobic capacity is purely your aerobic fitness, and it's your ability of your body to produce energy while using oxygen as a fuel source. Now, this is the single most important aspect of your fitness you need to develop before a high altitude hike, which will then help you with your success. Now, I cannot stress this enough how crucial this is. Now the way you develop this, is through long duration lower to moderate intensity exercise. So this might be things from irregular hiking, which hopefully you're doing, it might be cycling, it might be running, it might be longer walking, it might be doing stuff on gym cardio machines, it might be swimming, but anything that you can sustain for long periods of time, at a low to moderate intensity without having to stop.
Now, this should be the backbone of any preparation program, but what most hikers tend to do is if they are following a training program, is they might only just be doing this once a week, and then go on their weekend hiking. And they might sort of do a bit of strength training during the week, they might just be relatively enacted, and then on the weekend they'll go for a long hike. Which is okay to an extent, but if you really, really want to develop this to the best of your ability, you need to be stimulating this at least more than once a week. So twice or three times ideally. Now obviously, time commitments can play a factor here, but you really, really wanting to be aiming for this.
Now the way you do this, is just choosing some type of exercise, as I said before, which you can sustain for anywhere from 40 minutes plus. Now, depending on your fitness, that's going to depend on how long you go for, and also your time commitments, but it can be anywhere from say, 40 minutes to three plus hours. Cyclists tend to be out on the road for hours, and hours, and hours, for the everyday trekker that might not be practical, but you just choose what's relevant here. Now, the main way to progress this, because as I always say, progression is the absolute key when it comes to training in any way, shape or form, is you want to be progressing your aerobic capacity training by training volume and distance. So basically, instead of trying to go faster in workout by workout, you might just want to be increasing the distance, increasing the time a little bit each week.
So if you are cycling, you might increase by 10, 15 minutes each week, if you're hiking maybe an extra half an hour each week, or whatever you can fit in, and just doing a slow and steady progression, going more, and more, and more, really, really, does make a big difference in this type of training.
Now, when I say that this is so incredibly important, it is not just coming from my experiences, even though the way this type of training has been applied to my clients, it's been very successful, but it's also coming from people who are much smarter and much more experienced in me in the high altitude performance world. So the guys at Uphill Athlete, they've been doing this stuff for years, and years, and years, and they're more or less the world leaders when it comes to this type of stuff, and they are firm believers that aerobic capacity really does make a massive difference to your chances of acclimatization up on the mountain.
The greater the aerobic capacity, the less strain you can put on yourself during day by day, by day, when you're actually up on the mountain, the more energy your body's going to have to help your acclimatization, and the more likely that's going to go ahead. So, number one, aerobic capacity is so, so important.
Now, number two, as we said before, we're trying to avoid fatigue, and avoid exhaustion. That's the key thing. And usually, high altitude hiking comes with an element of going uphill and elevation, which we all know can very much tire us pretty quickly. So we want to be making sure we're including a reasonable elevation training in our workouts, just to get us ready so that it's not unnecessarily fatiguing us, it's not unnecessarily exhausting us and putting us in a bad position. So, I spoke about this in length last week, so I'm not going to dive into it in too much details, but in very, very brief, number one, you need to be getting your legs strong, and as strong as you can, because it's going to make a massive difference to every single step you take when you're going up on elevation. So that basically involves a reasonable amount of strength training, which has got you getting down to some more difficult and heavier load strength training if appropriate for you and your personal situation, that really, really will pay off.
And then also muscular endurance training, so teaching the body to be able to sustain repeated contractions again, and again, and again without fatiguing. So that's going to be developed through higher repetition strength training, just before you go. Maybe things like loading hill intervals, maybe stair climbing, stuff like that. As we've said, if you're living at sea level, you might not have access to regular mountains to climb on, or big hills to climb on, so this is where you get creative and you might be climbing an apartment block, going up and down the fire escape. You might be in the gym using the stair master, you might be just finding a relatively steep hill which takes a few minutes to walk up, and you just repeat, repeat, repeat. Whatever you need to do to stimulate that muscular endurance, is going to be very, very effective here.
The next one I want to talk about, is training your breathing. So I'm a firm believer in using diaphragmic breathing to help up at altitude. Now, to be entirely clear here, this is completely anecdotal, meaning, this has worked for my clients in a number of situations. But as far as I'm aware there's no real science or research to back this up, but when you look at it, it does make relative sense and has worked for my clients, so I do like to recommend it. And top of that, it has no downside to do it. It's not going to put you in trouble, it's not going to be any issues, it's just lots of upside potentially, and I really do like it.
So diaphragmatic breathing is very, very simple. Basically, when you're breathing in, you're trying to breath in through your mouth, and as you take in the air, you're trying to feel your belly expand, as opposed to the chest and the shoulders. The idea behind this is, when you're breathing into the chest and the shoulders, as we naturally do when we're a little bit tired, or we're a little bit stressed out, it stimulates your flight or fight response, which is basically you're getting pumped up, ready to roll, trying to deal with a threat. That can have a whole bunch of different changes in the body, but one thing is, potentially that it does, is it doesn't let you utilize oxygen your taking in quite as effectively. Or, at least that's what they say.
Alternatively, if you're doing diaphragmatic breathing, then what you're doing is you're stimulating your rest and digest response, which sort of calms the body down, lets it focus on a few different functions, and the main thing for us is, it helps you utilize the oxygen you're taking in a little bit more effectively. Or, so people say. What I've noticed with my clients, is when they've done this, when they're up on the mountain, and when it's that altitude is, if they are getting a little bit spacey, or a little bit tired by focusing on this, it can really remove some of the dizziness, some of the spaciness and get them feeling a little bit more comfortable. And when people can do this throughout the day when they're going up hills and that, it just keeps their breathing a little bit more under control.
So this is a really, really easy skill to practice at home when you are living at sea level, which can have some pretty decent benefits when you're up on the mountain. And as with everything, the more you practice this, and the more you train it, the more effective it's going to be, particularly in times of stress when you're up on the mountains potentially struggling for breath, or a little bit tired, or whatever. So there's a little progression which I ask my clients to go through, which I do find can be quite effective to getting this going.
So stage number one to learn this, is simply laying on your back. So you might be doing this when you're laying in bed, you might be doing it before you go to sleep, or you might be doing this in your rest periods in the gym. You basically lay on your back, you put your hands across your belly, big breaths in through nose, trying to feel your hands come up through the belly as the belly expands, and then you breath out and feel the belly come back to normal. And you literally spend, if you're in bed, maybe five minutes doing that, you'll probably fall asleep more than likely, but if you're in the gym you might just do your rest periods there, and so it might be a minute or two, or something like that. And you just practice it for a few weeks just again, and again, and again, and it eventually gets easier.
The next step is to do it when you're standing. So it's a little bit harder when you're actually on your feet. You'll do this at home, if you're waiting for a bus, if you're in an elevator, if you were again, in you're rest periods in the gym, and you'll just stand, put your hands across your belly, feel that belly expand each time, and away you go.
Stage number three, is when you're walking. So it does get significantly harder when you're actually walking, so this will be if you're just walking around the neighborhood, if you're walking to work, if you're walking around the office, or even on your training hikes, where you just want to focus breathing through the nose, feel that belly expand, and roll through with that.
The next one is when you're walking with a pack on, so this would be when you're actually out hiking, or if you're doing pack work in the gym. Just having a weight on your back, and a bit of a load on your back does make this a lot more difficult, so it is very, very important that you practice this before you hit the mountain, just so you know you can deal with it with something on your back. And again, you'd be doing the same thing. So if you were doing your workout of your hike, you just try and maintain this more or less the entire time.
And then finally, you'd be doing this in your rest periods in your interval training. Now if you're doing any type of interval training, in your rest periods you tend to just faff around and not really do too much, this is really, really good to try and practice when you are quite huffed and puffed. It's really, really difficult to do if you've just done a sprint, or if you've just done something that's a bit higher intensity, but the more you can practice this the easier it's going to be when you are on the mountain in that thin air, and it's a little bit more difficult. So it's a little progression I get my clients to go through. I feel like I find that it's relatively effective, and it can be a very, very handy tool to use when you're up at altitude.
Now, they're the three main things that I usually recommend. Aerobic capacity development, absolutely number one. Elevation training, making sure you're nailing that. And diaphragmatic breathing when you're training for high altitude when you're at sea level.
Now you might wondering if there's a few areas which I didn't cover, which you'll often hear recommended. So very briefly, I'll talk about three areas which you hear all the time, which I don't generally recommend. I have previously talked about these in other podcasts separately, but we'll talk about them now. Number one, is HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training. This is the most common thing I hear for high altitude, in the sense that people say, "Hey, the best way to train to get yourself in high altitude, is to do high interval training, because you get huffed and puffed on the mountain, therefore if you're getting huffed and puffed in your training you'll be training your lungs, and you're going to be training your VO2max, and get you more comfortable in that situation." And there is a grain of truth in there, but really, really, it's just not the best way of going about things.
When you are hiking in any way, shape or form, you're going to be predominantly using your aerobic energy system, which is a very specific energy system, which is usually for lower intensity exercise. Alternatively, when you're doing HIIT, you're developing the anaerobic energy systems, which are energy systems which produce energy when you're doing high intensity exercise. There is some crossover there, but it's not as much as you would think, and you're much better using your time to spend this on aerobic capacity training, or longer moderate intensity stuff, as opposed to this really, really short, sharp sprint training, or HIIT classes, or sprints and stuff like that. People love doing it, and it does make you feel good, and it does has some particular benefits for trekkers, but focusing on it and thinking it's going to really, really help you up at altitude, is probably not the best way of going about things. So I don't generally recommend HIIT for this specific purpose.
Number two, is simulated altitude training. Now, simulated altitude training is becoming more and more available to the everyday person, and that's either involved you going into a chamber and you're doing some training in a simulated altitude chamber, alternatively, you're hiring a tent and you're sleeping in that. Now, the main issue with this type of training is that, the simulated altitude training, creates an artificial altitude environment, which is not exactly the same as natural altitude. It has some similarities, but it also has some big differences. So therefore, a lot of the things that people claim for this type of training in this type of environment, they take from studies which are being done at natural altitude, and it just doesn't cross over with the two.
Now I've done an entire podcast on this previously, so I'm not going to dive into it too much. I'm just going to say, this type of stuff can have some benefits for you when you going up at altitude, but it's not that magic pill which a lot of people think it is. The main thing is, if you're looking at this type of training, number one, you've got to spend a lot of time doing it. So I think if you're just going in a couple of times a week for 30, 40 minutes in a chamber, it's not going to do much, or if you're just trying to sleep in a tent for a week or two, it's not going to do much. The people who are using it effectively to help them feel more comfortable at moderate altitudes, and also to help apparently speed their acclimatization, which there's a lot of debate around that, they're spending weeks, and weeks, and weeks sleeping every single night in a tent. So that is the way you're going to get adaptations. If you're not spending that much time, I would probably would recommend against it.
And then number three is, elevation masks. I talked about this the other week, those big black masks that people wear in the gym. I'll just say, they're a waste of your time, they don't do anything to mimic the effects of high altitude, although they often get marketed as something that will help you up in thin air. It'll make it really difficult to breathe, it won't do a thing to help you. So save your money, save your dignity there, don't use them they're a waste of your time, and I won't say too much more about that.
So that's probably enough from me today guys. Just to recap, if you are preparing for a high altitude hike, and you live at sea level and you have no chance of doing acclimatization, whether you're going up to natural altitude, or doing a training hike or something like that, you need to nail your aerobic capacity training as much as you can. You need to make sure you're doing everything you can do to avoid fatigue when you're doing your elevation, so making sure that's nailed. I highly recommend you practice and master that diaphragmatic breathing, and then nail those three things. Do all the good things you need to do at altitude, take your time, protect your sleep, stay hydrated, make sure you're eating plenty, and then hopefully, you're going to be in a really good position to get through your high altitude hike, and have a really amazing adventure.
So I hope you've enjoyed the information today, guys. If you have taken some value out of this, and it has given you some new information to think about, I really would appreciate if you can leave me a five star review on iTunes. As I always say, it makes a massive difference to helping me grow this podcast, and I really would appreciate and absolutely, genuinely love if you could take five seconds out of your time to go do that for me.
So again, I hope you've enjoyed this episode today guys, and will talk to you soon. Bye.
Want to get fit, strong and resilient for a high altitude hike?
Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training for hiking, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training for hiking service created specifically to help hikers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.