I remember my first experience of exercising at altitude. I went to Nepal to trek to Annapurna base camp 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.
If you’re a regular reader or follower you’ll know that I’m someone who loves to stay active. I love the way activity makes me feel and I feel lethargic and lazy without it. On average I workout about 5 times a week for 30 minutes or so, normally from my hotel room/Airbnb or local park/ green space.
Then I came to South America. Here I learned that altitude is very much REAL. If you haven’t yet been to somewhere at a high elevation, it kinda 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 in some places in South America is a whole new ball game. With altitudes of 2400m+ in so many places in my recent itinerary, it makes it impossible to keep up with my usual workout routine.
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.
I also realised I need to cut myself my 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. Here are some of my top tips for working out and moving at 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. Take it easy and enjoy your travels. 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.
Throughout my high altitude travels, 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 body weight moves and low-intensity workouts.
#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.
#4 Listen to your body and your travel schedule.
It 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 Yoga, yoga, and more yoga.
I’ve always loved yoga but really struggle to find the time to do more of it. I find that being back at altitude really allows me to do just that. 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 exercising at an 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, it better not to do it.
Please leave a comment below, I’d love to hear about your high altitude experiences!