Thursday, February 7, 2013

High-Altitude Training

(Fitness Opinion)

Entering the Gates of Time. My 1998 190km Trek
in Annapurna Nepal
 I quickly learned the value of acclimatization as soon as I started climbing at altitudes. By altitude I mean – higher than 10,000ft (for simplicity). One obvious change in the physiology is the body’s build-up of more O2-carrying haemoglobin, which helps in performing (or at least surviving) at an even higher altitude.

Now to use that to boost performance is also an old technique utilized by many athletes around the world, and is already popular in the Philippine setting. Baguio or other similar high places are now popular for athletes wanting to have an O2-deprived environment, so they can perform better at a sea-level environment. Tri-athletes, runners and boxers alike!

How does it work? If one trains on an O2-deprived environment, his/her system will adapt to that ‘difficult environment’ for example producing more red blood cells to accommodate more O2 absorption. Immediately after that – if one descend to a lower altitude, his performance on an ‘easy environment’ will improved given higher O2 absorption – i.e. more power-generating capability.

My team mate in Cho Oyu expedition (6th highest mountain) even utilized a hypobaric chamber to simulate high altitude during his pre-trip training. In the actual expedition, he was ok until around 16,000ft and got sick, but recovered quickly at 20k+ (he summitted). I didn’t think the chamber helped him, I think generally - it may if one used that every single day for few hours each time before his/her climb trip or race.

Going at altitude to train is a technique that I’ve used a few times, sometimes it worked – sometimes just so-so. To site a few… Before I climbed Denali (20000ft+), I did a 10day hike in Himalayan Nepal, reached an altitude of 16,000ft. More importantly, I reached a sleeping altitude of ~12,500ft. Sleeping time is longer and hence more valuable for our system adaptation – though this is also a risk time-zone hence many people suffer in AMS (acute mt sickness) or its symptoms during the night when the body is STILL adjusting to the altitude.

With more than a week gap between my Nepal and Alaska trips - my ‘acclimatization’ (ex. extra red blood cells in my system) obviously disappeared before I started climbing Denali (you lose the immediate effects w/in a couple of weeks), but I FELT the positive impact of my high-altitude Nepal trip and did Ok in Denali. FYI, my load in Denali was around 125lbs – at least the first few days, hauling my gears and supply via my sled and giant pack - over slippery, steep iced terrain. But I physically did ok (-only 3 of us out of 12 made it).

In Mt. Vinson (16,000ft), lacking money and time, I only did my ‘high altitude’ training in Baguio, including the walk up towards Ambuklao dam (5k ft), for just 3days, 4-5hrs/day (of weighted walk carrying 15-20li h2o). It was obviously not enough even with a relatively easier Vinson objective, I was in fact one of the weakest member in that climb.

Now, let me offer my opinion on this topic and see how one can maximize this training approach…

A quick on altitude, anything beyond 26,000ft is death zone (a mountaineer’s goal and not a training place) where air pressure is almost 1/3 of sea level atmospheric pressure - hence barely enough to sustain human life. Higher than 18,000ft and below the Death Zone is extreme altitude with 50-65%-something less air pressure (used as an altitude-goal by mountaineers who will immediately climb higher (after briefly descending to recover). Ideally – an altitude between 10 to 15,000ft is needed to gain really significant ‘altitude training’ benefit (30-40% air pressure decrease) --> for end-objectives of lower altitudes (ex. marathon in Metro). In the Philippines, the realistic altitude (given limited options) would be places like Cordillera in Luzon - starting from Baguio going North to Mountain Province and on to Kalinga – a scenic mountain range that could offer anywhere from 4 to 7000ft or higher.

Lower Baguio (southwest areas) is averaging 4000ft, (reading air pressure chart - that has around 12% air pressure reduction). This is still THICK air zone. The road to Ambuklao is 5000ft+ has 17% less, so Better. Though I don’t think significant unless you trained longer or harder.

Some parts of Halsema highway (Baguio-Bontoc road) can offer 23% less air (that’s 77% air pressure). Mindanao mountains such as Apo, Dulang-dulang, etc. may offer better altitude, but lack of ‘space to train’ (ex. prolonged multi-day walk or bike) will make these mountains an ‘altitude-taste’ zone (tikim), more than a real hypoxic (O2-deprived) training environment.  Unless one moves up and down (repeating) on a specific altitude range, a technique that may be more appropriate in Kitanglad range (vs. Apo).

There are 3 factors that positively contribute to high altitude training – Time (duration), Altitude (Above Sea Level) and actual EFFORT.

The relationship of these three is simple, the higher the altitude - the less time and effort needed, the lower the altitude – the more time/duration and/or effort is needed to gain significant benefit.

If one is training in Baguio for a mere few days AND targeting a higher than 10,000ft environment – this is almost useless. Better than nothing, but gain is not very significant.

If one is training in Baguio (again as an example of a popular training ground) for a Manila event – but only over a weekend with simple/short routine, I also think that there’s no significant altitude-related gain. (The difficult terrain will help, not the altitude per se).

If one is bent in really doing a useful and more effective altitude training - it may be better to ride further, to Halsema highway for example; then do your routine say running, ‘weighted’ walking, or bike – for several days to a week. Or do up and down and up-down to Pulag from the DENR station.

Baguio (or Sagada ~5k ft) may seem to be a nice place to train, with good accommodation, restos and bars and scenic views – but I think that the true training value of this place is the terrain (up and down helps in cardio/muscle build), and temperature (cold makes the body work harder) – sometimes the combined effects of the rough terrain and colder air is mistaken for ‘altitude’; but the place offer only a bit of altitude training benefit, not unless done in many hours, in many days, with a difficult / hard routine.

To conclude, training in not-so-high places (10-15%less air pressure) like Baguio or Sagada is beneficial mostly due to its terrain. But don’t expect a real high-altitude training gain unless routines are done “very long and difficult”.

Of course, if you have the money and time - best to visit the abode of the gods – go to Himalaya to gain REALLY significant training benefit!  A trekker (non-climber) has easy access to reach an altitude of 18,000ft (in around 14-17days). At that altitude, air pressure is just half (which means your body’s training effort is doubled – hence the training GAIN!). Just be careful not to be badly sick or injured.

Then go back to the city and do your race or other sport objectives!  :)

(Watch-out for my Opinion post on “Hypoxic Swimming, Meditation, etc.)

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