This week, Fitness Adventure Travel has quizzed Tara Guerin, Performance Specialist at The Altitude Centre. Read on to learn why preparing for trips to altitude is the key to a safe and successful adventure of a lifetime.
Altitude – a higher elevation than sea level – means that there’s less oxygen in the air. The air gets thinner. At sea level, like London, the oxygen content of the air is around 20.9 per cent. As you ascend higher and higher, the oxygen levels in the air drop; by the time you’re in the Alps, you’re at 2,700m and the oxygen percentage in the air has reduced to around 15per cent oxygen.
Low oxygen, high altitude environments are called hypoxic. ‘Hypo’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘below’ or ‘under’ and ‘oxic’ meaning oxygen. ‘Hypoxic’ means there’s less oxygen in the air than at ‘normoxia’, another scientific phrase to impress your friends with, which describes the air at sea level.
As the air around you gets thinner (more hypoxic) and your supply of oxygen diminishes, you’ll experience physiological changes: signals from your body tell you it’s working hard to acclimatise and continue to function with less oxygen that it’s used to.
Symptoms of your body changing gear to get used to less oxygen include increased heart rate, increased breathing-rate (you may feel out of breath just walking at a normal pace), mild dizziness and fatigue.
If your body starts to struggle to adapt, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS, also known as ‘altitude sickness’) can creep in. AMS normally starts from 2,400m, with differing forms of severity. Some experience a mild headache and queasiness. For others, the life-threatening conditions High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE) or High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE) can occur. This can get worse if you ascend to altitude too quickly, so it pays to take it slowly! Whilst tempting to dash about Quito on your first day, taking it easy will leave you feeling a lot better: Be the tortoise, not the hare!
How predisposed you are to AMS, HAPE or HACE is genetic, and the only way to find out how you cope with low oxygen levels is to be tested at altitude (real or simulated).
Traditionally, mountaineers used to spend weeks at base camp, ahead of summiting mountains such as Kilimanjaro (summit elevation 5,895m and 10 per cent oxygen), to help them get used to the hypoxic conditions.
Having access to real altitude is no longer a luxury most of us can afford. The Altitude Centre (www.altitudecentre.com) caters to those heading out to altitude, helping to stimulate the physiological adaptations necessary to ensure an increased oxygen carrying capacity without having to spend months living at altitude before summiting Kili or exploring Quito in Ecuador (3,000m and 14-14.2 per cent oxygen).
The Altitude Centre’s chamber near Bank in the City ranges from 2,700m- 3,000m, with the option of experiencing 5,000m- 6,000m with passive (resting) Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure (IHE). Our Mountaineering Consultations are geared around ensuring you know as much as possible before you go about altitude and how you’ll react in hypoxic environments. We also offer home rental systems that provide the same service for those who can’t make it to our London centre.
Preparing at simulated altitude before you travel will increase your chances of having a safe, successful and enjoyable trip.
It’s not a revolutionary piece of advice, but the motto, ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ most definitely applies to acclimatising for altitude. Trips to altitude require physical preparation beyond breaking in your walking boots. Ascending slowly is hugely important, as it gives your body time to acclimatise.
Remember, be the tortoise, not the hare.
Tara Guerin is a Performance Specialist at The Altitude Centre, based in the heart of the City of London. The Altitude Centre is the only public simulated altitude chamber in the UK, and helps train everyone from athletes to adventurers and holiday-makers preparing to go to altitude.
For more information, please contact:
THE ALTITUDE CENTRE
Office. +44 20 7193 1626