Adjusting to High Altitude

Gaining altitude has physiological effects on everyone. However, the effects vary considerably among individuals and do not closely correlate with physical condition, sex or age. A young well conditioned athlete could find himself more set back by a substantial rise in altitude than some inactive out of shape person.

Altitude affect is such that a fit person used to running several miles daily, who then comes up to a location 5000 feet higher than they are used to, may become exhausted after a half-mile of their usual running workout. A week to several weeks may have to pass at the new higher altitude before the usual level of performance ability exists again.

What causes this change There are two physiological factors resulting from altitude gain. The first and most obvious effect is caused by a reduction in concentration of oxygen in the air breathed. Going from sea level to 12,000 feet results in a reduction of oxygen concentration of about 40 percent. It takes time for the body to adjust to this reduction. The other factor involves leakage of fluid from capillaries into the lungs and brain.

These physiological effects result in two considerations: a reduction in physical stamina and the potential for developing altitude sickness. Given time for adjustment, the body will compensate by such methods as producing more red blood cells, increasing the pressure in pulmonary arteries, increasing the production of certain enzymes and deeper breathing.

The loss of physical stamina with altitude gain is easily detected. The symptom is feeling tired after a relatively small amount of physical exertion. The only real cure is to be at high-altitude until your body can make the necessary adjustments, and to take it easy until then. This temporary loss of stamina can lead to bad results because you are suffering from altitude associated weakness. The best thing you can do is to be honest with yourself and the others and slow down and take necessary rests before you drive yourself to physical exhaustion. If you start feeling woozy don’t be ashamed to take a break. It’s harder for the body to regain strength after you have driven it to near collapse.

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