I remember my first experience of exercise at high altitude. I went to Nepal to do the Annapurna base camp trek and only started to feel the slow, lethargic movement right towards the last push towards basecamp. The ascent was slow and I didn’t have any issues with the altitude and I remember not really taking altitude that seriously from then on.
Then I came to South America. Here I’ve learned that attitude is very much REAL. If you haven’t yet been to somewhere at a high elevation, it kind of feels like someone has strapped extra weight to your body and you’re trying to move around with it. Your heart beats faster to try to get your less-than-normal oxygenated blood around your body. As you walk up a hill or even a slight incline your heart rate increases faster than normal and your breathing gets a lot more difficult, a lot faster and you find yourself pausing to catch your breath. The higher the altitude the more severe the effects.
Working out and staying active in some places in South America and Asia is a whole new ball game. With altitudes of 2400m+ in so many places on my recent itinerary, it makes it impossible to keep up with my usual workout routine for most of my travels.
As a result, I found myself feeling a little frustrated that I’m not getting the results I’m used to during my workouts and it certainly feels like my fitness levels have deteriorated by half. There are some places that, just walking up a slight hill takes your breath away.
But, I also realised I need to cut myself some slack. I’m not going to be living at altitude forever and I don’t have to stop working out, I just have to adapt and be flexible. There are so many other workouts that you can do at an altitude that count as movement. Here are some of my top tips for exercise at high altitude that have so far proved priceless.
#1 DON’T STRESS ABOUT IT
The best tip of all. Like I said you’re not going to be living at altitude forever unless you have just moved to the Peruvian Altiplano or Himalayas. The most important thing to keep in mind is to take it easy and enjoy your travels. If you don’t feel like working out, or you can’t- don’t worry. Workout and move as much as you can and as much as you want it. Any workout and movement done at altitude will make you fitter and stronger and you’ll be surprised to find yourself much fitter when you come down to sea level again. There’s a reason why the world’s best endurance athletes train at altitude.
#2 ADAPT YOUR WORKOUT ROUTINE
Throughout my high altitude travels, depending on the altitude, I have come to experience that the easiest thing to do is say goodbye to most HIIT and cardio-based workouts. Due to their intensity, they are the ones that tend to leave people with a thumping heart and seriously short of breath. Stick to slow bodyweight moves and low-intensity workouts.
Using resistance bands is also a brilliant idea and something that I use for most of my workouts when travelling. They are light-weight, pack down super small and are so effective at working out the muscles. I’ve tried many brands of resistance bands over the years and these by GYMBANDIT are by far the best.
#3 ADAPT YOUR WORKOUT LENGTH AND PACE
I often find that the solution to adapting your workouts is not to change the workout but to reduce it. Instead of doing 20 reps that may likely kill you at 4500m, go for 7 or even 5. The pace is key too. I find that going a lot slower and focusing on my muscle movement and form makes the workout easier and also makes you tune into your bodies movements more.
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#4 LISTEN TO YOUR BODY AND TRAVEL SCHEDULE
It’s ok to just relax and not workout if you don’t want to or are too exhausted from travelling. Listen to your body. If you have booked yourself to do a multi-day trek at altitude you probably might just want to rest for the week coming up to it and that’s perfectly ok.
#5 DO YOGA
With its focus on stability, breathing and connection, yoga might be the perfect exercise to do while travelling at altitude. Not only might you feel more connected to the beautiful landscape around you, but yoga sequences are also controlled, slow and stable. I feel that I’m still working and using all my muscles just without the breathlessness and cardio strain. Yoga is definitely my go-to movement or workout at altitude. I highly recommend it to anyone who still wants to move at altitude but wants to avoid too much cardio.
I hope these tips have made the thought of exercise at high altitude somewhat simpler. Remember, however, don’t push yourself too hard. Altitude sickness and altitude-related symptoms can be deadly. Listen to your body. If it’s screaming no, don’t do it. Always see a doctor if you really do feel ill.
Do you have any comments or questions about exercise at high altitude? Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear about your high altitude experiences!
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