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How to Exercise in High Altitudes

The (Lack of) Air Up There: Exercising in High Altitudes

Recently I went to my first fitness retreat: the Lake Tahoe Wellness Weekend. After spending three fitness-filled days there, I left with the kind of sore body that any fitness fanatic craves. I also experienced changes in how my body performed. When a friend went for a run through the surrounding area, she noticed that she was breathing harder than she normally does and that her lungs hurt a little bit. Given the circumstances, it wasn't too surprising. We were at a much higher altitude than normal (6,200 feet), and because there's less oxygen the higher you go, the heart has to work harder, which can result in a faster heart rate and breath. While at the retreat, I picked up some helpful tips on how to deal with exercising at high altitudes.

  • Start slow. While the breathtaking mountain views may inspire you to immediately hit the running trail, give your body time to acclimate. If you can afford to, spend your first day doing normal day-to-day activities and wait to start your fitness regimen on day two. Once you do start exercising, start slow. Pay attention to your body and don't push yourself to run your usual six-minute mile if you notice that your lungs hurt, you're too short on breath, or your heart is beating alarmingly fast. Pushing yourself too soon may result in injury.

Learn why carbo-loading is your friend in high altitudes, and other tips, after the break!

  • Hydrate. Cool mountain air can be deceiving — you might not feel like you need water, but the truth is, you need even more of it. A higher altitude means lower air pressure and humidity levels, which means you end up losing more moisture from your body than you would at sea level. Add strenuous activity to this scenario and it's more important than ever to stay adequately hydrated. Keep a water bottle on you at all times and avoid dehydrating beverages like alcohol, sugary drinks, and caffeine.
  • Always wear a SPF. It may feel cooler at a higher altitude, but your exposure to the sun is greatly increased. Make sure you always put on a good sunscreen before heading out since the heat from a sunburn triggers moisture loss, which can add to dehydration.
  • Carbo-load. Because your body is working harder when exposed to high altitudes, it's also burning more energy. To avoid feeling tired or experiencing muscle fatigue, eat a diet that's rich in complex carbohydrates because it can sustain you over a longer period of time. Adding to the argument of eating more quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat grain, is that the body requires less oxygen to burn carbs than it does to metabolize protein and fats.
  • If all else fails, take it easy. If you are finding that the symptoms of being in a higher elevation are just too much, take it easy. Opt light to moderate exercises like walking or restorative yoga, and use OTC painkillers to deal with any headaches you might be experiencing. Of course, if symptoms increase, make sure to see a doctor right away!
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