This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Triathlete.
Many athletes choose to live and train at high altitude with the particular goal of increasing endurance performance. While the merits of altitude training and the best methods and timing of implementation can be debated, let’s focus on changes in nutritional demands at higher elevations.
It is clear that any competition at altitude will benefit from acclimatization, or adaption to changes in physiological and metabolic demands. Systems that react to altitude and changes in oxygen pressure include cardiovascular, pulmonary and endocrine and the central nervous system, meaning changes in resting and maximal heart rate, rates of ventilation, blood pressure, VO2 max and oxygen transport. Nutritional support of these adaptations and systems during altitude acclimatization is crucial.
As with any environmental condition, there is a range of nutritional demands. A mildly warm day will require different nutritional strategies as compared with one of searing heat and humidity; similarly, with rising altitude there will be greater effects. For the most part, when endurance athletes talk of moderate altitude, they are talking somewhere in the range of 5,000 to 8,000 feet (1,500-2,500 meters).
Here are some nutritional challenges athletes might face at moderate altitude.
Extra fluid intake is vital. Rising altitude means that breathing is shallower and more frequent; this increased ventilation along with dry air leads to greater fluid losses through the respiratory system. Additionally, sweat evaporates quickly, which can lead you to believe you are not losing much fluid and are less inclined to drink. When training or competing at altitude, carry more fluid than you would regularly and keep drinking to avoid dehydration. Even on shorter runs that you would complete at sea level without water, it is a good idea to use something such as a hydration belt or a handheld quick draw when training at altitude; you are more likely to drink often when fluid is readily available.
Basal metabolic rate (BMR) increases at altitude, especially in the first couple of days. Appetite is also suppressed by hypoxia, so to minimize reduction in body mass and loss of muscle, take care to match your caloric needs. With time to acclimatize, BMR drops again, but not quite to base level (sea level rate). There also seems to be a shift in fuel utilization toward a greater reliance on carbohydrate as opposed to fat stores. If flying in for a race, you might consider frequent small meals that are carbohydrate-rich to maintain energy levels. Carbohydrate-rich sports drinks would also be beneficial in meeting both increased fluid and carbohydrate needs.
As the body tries to adapt to a lower oxygen concentration in the air, greater numbers of red blood cells, which transport oxygen to working muscles, are produced by the bone marrow. In fact, this is the primary reason why endurance athletes train at altitude; to achieve the increase in oxygen-carrying capacity and the associated improvements in endurance capacity. However, iron is required to manufacture hemoglobin (the oxygen-binding portion of red blood cells) and consequently, any iron deficiency can reduce the benefits of altitude training. Before you go to altitude, consider having a blood test to ensure your iron stores are adequate. Talk to your doctor about your plans to train or race at altitude and if you should consider taking iron supplements. Otherwise, include iron-rich foods in your diet (animal sources such as lean red meats are best absorbed).
Altitude places stress on the body, which might affect your immune system when combined with hard training. A diet rich in natural antioxidants is perhaps even more important to help the body cope, adapt and stay healthy. Along with a healthy diet, good hygiene habits and plenty of recovery will also help.
Often altitude goes hand in hand with either hot, dry climates or cold conditions. Keep this in mind when it comes to changing nutritional needs.
Remember, too, that individuals adapt to altitude differently. Take your time, listen to your body and don’t expect to feel great in the first few days or even up to two weeks.
Altitudes around the world
|Location||Height (in feet)|
|Santa Fe, NM||7,000|
|Lake Tahoe, NV||6,225|
|Mexico City, Mexico||7,350|
|St. Moritz, Switzerland||6,090|
|Sierra Nevada, Spain||7,610|
|Mt. Teide, Tenerife||6,200|
|Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania||19,298|
|Mt. Everest, Nepal||29,028|