We worry about packing the perfect gear. We worry about whether we’ve worked out long enough to prepare our muscles. But when it comes to combining travel, adventure and endurance activities, it is easy to forget one major variable: altitude sickness. For those of us accustomed to living and training at sea level, this seemingly non-descript malady doesn’t pick and choose between the most fit and less fit, but it does command respect. And once you’ve experienced it, chances are good you won’t forget to pay attention the next time around.
You do not have to head to snowy mountains to contend with altitude sickness. The higher the elevation (anything over 5,000 feet is considered high altitude), the lower the concentration of oxygen. Less oxygen means that the heart and lungs have to work harder. The end result? Higher heart ratesand harder breathing. I learned this the hard way during a trip to Chile’s Atacama Desert – which boasts not just the title of driest desert in the world, but elevations that can shock the non-acclimated traveler.
I consider myself a hiker. But during my time in the Atacama Desert, even the flat walk from the hotel restaurant to my room caused me to feel winded. The worst was feeling like my lungs might explode out of my chest on a hike up and out of a canyon filled with the most incredible petroglyphs. And it isn’t just your lungs that are affected by altitude. Headaches, nausea, loss of appetite, fatigue and trouble sleeping are common at high altitude (between 4,900 and 11,500 feet) and very high altitude (11,500 to 18,000 feet). Anything over 18,000 feet is considered extremely high altitude and the effects range from small to severe – and life-threatening – if ignored.
Here are six tips to combat altitude sickness:
Give your body time to acclimatize. Acclimatization can take several days as the body compensates for the change in oxygen levels. Arrive early or leave yourself several days before diving into your adrenaline-pumping adventures. Some outfitters will insist that you’ve acclimatized two or three days before certain activities. And don’t beat yourself up if you need to go to a lower altitude for a period of time to rest.
Drink water. The adventure guides at the Hotel Cumbres San Pedro de Atacama, where I stayed, recommend a minimum of 2 liters of water per day. We were asked if we needed water every time our tour group hopped in the van, since staying hydrated is one of the simplest and most effective ways to prevent symptoms.
Limit alcohol. I get it. A cold beer sounds refreshing and a luxurious apres-ski beverage is well-deserved after a long day of skiing. And trust me, while traveling in Chile – the last thing I wanted to do was limit my sampling of Chilean wines. But alcohol causes dehydration and only magnifies the impact of being at high altitude.
Rest. Even the fittest of adventurers can feel weak or fatigued during their time at a higher elevation. Instead of pushing through it, try listening to your body and resting more than you think you need to when possible to combat the symptoms.
Change your training focus before your trip. The organizers of Vacation Races – a series of eight half marathons centered around National Parks, where participants often run at higher elevations – remind athletes preparing for events to stay hydrated and expect a slower pace. As she explains in a Runner’s World piece, running coach and columnist Jennifer Hadfield suggests training by effort instead of pace: “Training by how your body feels (breathing rate) will always guide you in training and racing in the right zone based on the given day.”
Consider an over-the-counter or prescription medicine. Traveling for a big endurance event and don’t have as much time to acclimatize? Or maybe you’ve experienced altitude sickness before? Ask your physician about taking preventative measures with a prescription of acetazolamide (Diamox) to speed up how fast your body adjusts to the higher altitude.