Exercising at Different Altitudes

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The human body best performs at sea level, where the atmospheric pressure is at 1atm, and the concentration of oxygen is about 20.9%. People who are natives to regions of high altitude have a greater chest capacity, and effectively use whatever oxygen there is to deliver it to their tissues. When people who do live closer to sea level travel to places of higher altitude, they are often in for a surprise.


Swimming, skiing, hiking in the mountains, or even taking a jog is exhausting. As altitude increases, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere declines, but the body’s need for oxygen still remains the same! Even a super-trained athlete must breathe faster at higher altitudes to bring a greater volume of air into the lungs. This is
necessary for the oxygen to pass into the blood to meet the demands of the muscle cells. The heart also needs to beat faster to move more oxygen-rich blood into the cells of the body.

Athletes have used altitude training to prepare for the biggest matches and events. When the air is thinner, every breath taken delivers less of what working muscles need. The effects of higher altitudes are noticeable at even 5,000 feet above sea level. To compensate for the decrease in oxygen, the hormone erythropoietin, EPO, triggers the production of more red blood cells to aid in oxygen delivery to muscles.

Synthetic EPO is associated with “doping” and performance enhancing drugs. Currently, we are still more concerned with synthetic EPO than we are with training at higher altitudes. The aim for training at higher altitudes is to produce extra red blood cells. Once they have trained enough, their physiology starts to change, and the effects can last down at sea level for 10-20 days.

Here are some tips if you are considering exercising at higher altitudes:

Let your body adjust. NFL players struggle to play games in places like Denver. To prevent oxygen deprivation, you should let your body naturally adjust before jumping into exercise. You should give yourself time to process and see what it feels like to be in higher altitudes before you push it to the limit.

Start Slow. You shouldn't start the same exercise routine that you can complete at home. If you are used to running five miles per day at lower altitudes, you should start only walking a few miles to see if your body can handle it, and process the changes. Once you have accomplished walking a few miles, try to jog. It will likely take a few days for your body to be accustomed to the changes.

Use a Gym. If you are not someone who lives in areas of high altitude, you will not be sure of how your body will react to breathing at higher altitudes. Because of this, you should not workout alone. Working out at in a gym may give you access to oxygen, and you will be surrounded by people who can help if a situation occurs.