Exercise at Altitude

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Photo courtesy of Whistler tourism (

Words: Cathy Struthers

My friends have always thought me a bit odd when it comes to holidays. Instead of booking a lazy trip to the sun, sea and sand to recharge the batteries, I shy away from anything approaching sea level and opt for a mountain fix. When I get home I feel fitter, fresher and fabulous, and going to the gym seems so much easier.

Whether you cycle, run or salute the sun to keep fit, research that shows you’ll get fitter doing it at altitude. Working out in the mountains also makes you slimmer, as you use more calories and burn more fat (now you know why Julie Andrews looked so smug after climbing every mountain).

The Science Bit

‘At heights above 1,500m, the air is thinner,’ explains Richard Pullman founder of The Altitude Centre in London. ‘Breathing less oxygen stimulates the hormone erythropoieten, which boosts the production of red blood cells carrying oxygen around the body. The more available oxygen you have in your blood, the more stamina you’ll have and the greater your aerobic threshold.’

Working out at altitude makes your body work in better ways. There’s less oxygen up there so the body adapts to become more efficient. ‘Your heart muscle beats harder so becomes stronger, you breathe more deeply, increasing lung capacity and new capillaries grow to get the limited supply of oxygen to tissues,’ adds Pullman.

All these changes mean when you return to boring old sea level, the oxygen levels you normally breathe take you further. And, the more unfit you are, the more dramatic your improvements are likely to be.

Fitter, Slimmer, Higher

Take trail running. Apart from being a lot more interesting than jogging on jostling streets, off road running on dirt tracks and mountain passes will help you burn more than double the calories. It will feel harder high up but, as your body replaces the glycogen stores for up to 15 hours afterwards, you’ll burn twice as many calories (up to 1,200) in that period than you would at sea level. And yes, that means you can run for half the time for the same calorie burn.

It’s also far gentler on your knees than pounding pavements and the ups downs and unevenness of the terrain make you use more muscles, improving muscle tone, dexterity and core strength.

If you want your altitude workout laced with adrenaline, try swapping rock for ice and climb your way up frozen waterfalls. The principle is the same as rock climbing but you don ice spikes on your boots and hold ice picks to climb. Like rock climbing, ice climbing tones the arms, shoulders and legs and burns about 1,000 calories an hour. At altitude, the mental calm needed to ascend may feel easier as you will need to take your time and breathe deeply to take on enough oxygen. Climbing also helps with flexibility – you’ll be pushing your limbs to the limit as you reach for handholds and footholds.

Come winter, altitude workouts come into their own. Skiing and snowboarding score high in the fitness stakes, even when you do them on a dry slope at sea level. When you add the altitude, you intensify the workout, burning up to 800 cals an hour as your body works harder due to the lack of oxygen. The stop-start nature of snowsports also make them great interval training (short, high-intensity exercise periods alternated with periods of rest).

But for the biggest fitness fix, try swapping the buzz of downhill for the burn of uphill, with a bit of cross country skiing. It’s the best aerobic exercise you can do, giving you a fabulous full body workout that pumps the heart and lungs and burns a huge amount of calories – up to 800 an hour at sea level – more than double that over 1,500m. The learning curve is steep (you can pick it up in just a few days), the injury rate is low and you can control the intensity of your workout yourself.

Even chilled out yoga is better for you at altitude. Yoga is all about the breathing and, with less oxygen, you breathe more deeply, increasing your lung capacity. When you return to sun salutations at sea level, the oxygen levels you are normally adapted to breathe take you further.

As well as stoking up your fat-burning furnaces, working out at altitude also increases levels of feelgood chemicals dopamine and serotonin, making you feel euphoric. Add to that the rugged, awesome scenery (which, let’s face it, has to be more inspiring than grey gym walls) and the air rich in negative ions (which, according to researchers at Columbia University, can actually help combat depression), and you’ve got even more health points.

Fake It

All very well. But, if you’re stuck living at sea level, what can you do? Cheat.

Oh yes, there are other ways to enjoy the benefits of altitude without forking out for a mountain retreat. Intermittent Hypoxic Training (IHT) allows you to mimic the fitness-boosting effects of altitude by inhaling mountain air without the need for the mountain. Unlike hiking up a mountain where your body gradually adapts, IHT deprives you of oxygen in short, sharp bursts as you switch between inhaling 10-15 per cent oxygen and 20.9 per cent oxygen sea level air. Breathing less oxygen forces you to inhale slowly and deeply, and your heart beats faster to get the limited oxygen around the body.

‘From a fitness perspective it’s brilliant,’ says Pullman, who offers IHT at The Altitude Centre ( ‘Studies have confirmed that athletes can improve their anaerobic performance by 40 per cent and aerobic performance by 20 per cent.’

Easy Does It

Before you rush off to the Alps, a word of warning. If you fly from sea level to 2,500m and then exercise vigorously straight away you risk falling sick with mountain sickness.

Typical symptoms include nausea, vomiting and a headache caused by your body failing to acclimatise to the decreased oxygen (hypoxia) as you go higher. Most will disappear if you simply go no higher and rest, so take it easy for the first day or two before starting your workouts.

Meanwhile, if you’re more worried about getting a head for heights, try a spot of NLP (neurolinguistic programming) to fight any vertigo fears. According to sports psychologist Pete Cohen, it is absolutely possible to talk yourself out of an attack of the wobbles at altitude.

Start by becoming aware of any negative thoughts that hit you when you’re up high, such as ‘I’m going to fall’. “Rewire’ that negative neural track by finding a positive statement in the present tense that will lead towards the end result you want (eg ‘I am a strong, confident skier’). Finally, re-programme your mind by repeating it aloud every day for between five and 20 minutes. Then, when panic hits, repeat the affirmation again.

Mountain Goddess Tips

Mountain athletes who spend all their time at altitude share their high altitude health tips.

  • * ‘I swear by Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour cream when I’m in the mountains. It’s great in all conditions and I use it everywhere to protect my skin from winter wind burn.’ – Chemmy Alcott, downhill skier.
  • * ‘To protect skin from the harsher sun at altitude, I love Himaya factor 50 which is designed for use in the snow at altitude. I then apply Benefit Honey Snap Out of It facial scrub to make sure all the sun cream doesn’t clog my pores.’ – Lesley McKenna, halfpipe snowboarder.
  • * ‘You often wake up with a very dry throat when staying in centrally-heated hotel rooms. To combat this I fill a sink with hot water before going to bed which keeps the air moist through the night.’ – Joanna Greig, downhill skier.
  • * ‘Being in good physical shape will help you cope with any ill effects at very high altitude. Boost your defences by ramping up your antioxidant intake by eating lots of fruit and veg before you go.’ – Zoe Gillings, snowboarder.

Where to Go to Get High

Trail running: If you want solid proof that being high has improved your heart rate and oxygenated your blood, sign up for a bespoke high altitude trail running programme called Welltain, run by two doctors at 1,450m in the Austrian Alps (

Yoga: Uma Paro in Bhutan, a mountain yoga retreat lying 2,300m above sea level. A 8/9 night package costs from £2,675 for flights, full board, yoga, Ayurvedic treatments and guided hikes. Call Erna Low Body & Soul Holidays (020 7594 0290,

Climbing: Head for ice climbing’s spiritual home of Chamonix. Find a guide at

Snowshoeing: Low-impact, easy on your joints and honestly not as geeky as it sounds, you’ll burn up to 1,000 calories an hour – 45 per cent more than walking or running at the same speed. It works all the muscles in the legs and research from the University of Vermont shows that the strength gains from snowshoeing can improve your running speed when you get back home too. Head for Whitepod in Villars, Switzerland ( Perched high in the mountains, Whitepod consists of seven dome-shaped ‘pods’, accessible only by snowshoe. Workout in the wilderness by day or add some romance on a torchlit moonlight snowshoe trek.

Cross country skiing: Join 15,000 others skiing across frozen lakes in the Engadin ski marathon in St Moritz. Children’s charity Wellchild (+44 (0)845 458 8170) organises learn-to-ski packages where you learn in three days and complete the marathon on the fourth.


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