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Athletics at Altitude. Nutritional strategies to compete at heights

Athletics at Altitude. Nutritional strategies to compete at heights

By Colleen Gulick

Location, location, location.  Athletic performance is heavily impacted by the location of the athlete.  Environmental factors can require the athlete to alter their behavior in order to succeed.  Altitude is one such environmental factor.  Learning what to expect when you travel to higher elevations and how to nutritionally prepare can help you achieve the best performance possible.

What is considered high altitude?

There are plenty of reasons that athletes find themselves at high altitudes: intentionally for training adaptations, living at a high elevation, or by necessity in order to compete in an event.  Before we start talking about the implications of elevation, let’s set some general guidelines as to what constitutes low, medium and high altitudes.  From sea level through approximately 1,000 meters is considered low altitude (Los Angeles, New York City, Miami, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Paris, Seoul, Mumbai).  Cities at moderate altitude lie approximately 1,000 through 3,000 meters above sea level and include Denver, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Nairobi, and Johannesburg.  Finally, Leadville, El Alto, and Quito are considered high altitude because they are cities above 3,000 meters.   

What makes high altitude different from sea level?

As elevation increases, air density decreases.  This has a huge impact on many physiological processes.  One of which is the lower oxygen concentration in the blood, which forces the body to find other ways to produce energy.  This change has a significant impact on endurance performance, specifically maximal aerobic workload.  This is why you may feel easily short of breath when exercising at altitude.  The body is great at adapting to its circumstances, which is why people who live at altitudes are capable of exercising at a high intensity.  However, the body needs approximately 3 weeks in order to get used to a new, high-altitude environment, so timing of travel is critical.  Anytime you travel it is great to understand what to expect when you land, in this way you can adequately prepare for what’s ahead.

What to expect when traveling to a higher altitude

o   Weight loss- There are multiple factors that contribute to weight loss at altitude.  A reduced appetite combined with an increased basal metabolic rate means that you may lose some fat and possibly muscle mass.  An increase in water loss through respiration and urine can also impact the scale.

 Dehydration- The first few days you are at elevation you can lose a significant amount of water due to increased respiration (up to 1900 mL/day for men and 850 mL/day for women).  In addition, an increase in urinary water loss can cause you to lose as much as 500 mL/day.  This adds up to a whopping 2,400 mL/day change for men and 1,350 mL/day change for women.  Those values correlate with 3-6 water bottles per day over and above what you drank at sea level. 

o   Fatigue and headaches- Some people experience fatigue and headaches when they travel to elevation.  This may be partially due to not eating enough with an increased workload on the body (fatigue) and dehydration (headache).      

Some of these challenges can be mitigated with proper preparation, including nutritional interventions. 

 How to nutritionally prepare for higher altitude workouts

Successful athletic performance at altitude necessitates not only an increased demand for energy but also for vitamins and minerals.  

    • Increase carbohydrate intake before exercise- Consuming carbohydrates approximately 40 minutes prior to exercise can provide energy to fuel your workout while also alleviating some of the negative symptoms of high altitude.  Carbohydrate intake is even more important when altitude is combined with decreased temperature (where cold stress and shivering can occur).  Failure to eat enough carbohydrates can lead to reduced exercise and low blood glucose (which can lead to central fatigue), neither of which are conducive to a great athletic performance.  
    • Consume carbohydrates and protein after exercise- This tip is not unique to location.  Consuming carbohydrates and protein after a workout at any altitude will help to speed up glycogen resynthesis, enhance muscle recovery, and aid in the repair of tissues.  However, high altitude can induce a decrease in appetite, so consuming calories that can also aid in performance is a win-win.  While post-exercise carbohydrates and proteins are helpful at any altitude, they can serve two functions at higher elevations. 
  • Add some electrolytes- Individuals traveling to high altitudes are already prone to dehydration.  When you add high-intensity, sweaty exercise, you lose additional water through sweat and respiration.  Electrolytes can help to direct water and nutrients to the areas of the body where it is needed.  In this way, it helps to maintain fluid balance, which can improve performance. 
    • Add B vitamins to your diet- When you exercise within the first few weeks upon arrival at a high altitude, you are unable to provide sufficient amounts of oxygen to the tissues due to the environment.  So, your body recognizes this and tries to fix this problem.  It works to adapt by increasing the red blood cell production (erythropoiesis).  The increase in red blood cells helps to carry oxygen throughout the body.  Hemoglobin is a specific protein in your red blood cells that carries the oxygen to your muscles and other organs. B vitamins are coenzymes that are required for the synthesis of hemoglobin.  Thus, being sure to have plenty of B vitamins is important in order to give your body the components you need to form new oxygen-carrying red blood cells, improve endurance performance, and acclimatize to high altitudes.     
    • Women increase iron consumption- There are a few different kinds of anemia, but iron deficiency anemia is the most common and impacts almost 30% of women worldwide.  It is the most common blood disorder and is caused by a shortage of iron in the body.  It can be accompanied by fatigue, weakness, paleness, cold hands and feet, and brittle nails.  Iron is also a key ingredient in hemoglobin formation.  Thus, with so many women being iron deficient already, their bodies already do not have enough iron to form the hemoglobin necessary to keep up with the demand of high performance exercise.  This demand for oxygen will increase as altitude increases, so iron will be even more crucial for female athletes.
    • Increase consumption of vasodilators- vasodilators are substances that widen the diameter of blood vessels.  This increased space in the blood vessels allows it to carry more nutrients and oxygen to the muscles (which enhances performance) as well as increases the rate of waste removal from the muscles (which also increases performance).  At altitude, nutrient and oxygen delivery becomes even more important than at sea level.  Thus, consuming substances that facilitate this process will improve endurance performance.  Some common vasodilators include: beetroot juice, cayenne pepper, garlic, and turmeric.
    • Try some adaptogens- Adaptogens are plant-based natural substances that help the body adapt to stress.  This stress can be in the form of mental stress, emotional stress, or physical stress.  The physical stress can come from exercise or also from altitude, either way the body is forced to work harder than normal.  Putting exercise with altitude significantly increases the stress imposed on the body.  Consuming adaptogens can help to manage this stress and adapt in a way that can improve performance.  Some adaptogens that have been used to improve performance at altitude or reduce the effects of altitude sickness include: ginkgo biloba leaf extract, reishi mushroom extract, rhodiola extract, and cordyceps extract.             

    Stepping up your game

    Whether you will be traveling to higher elevation for just a few days or you have a longer stay in mind, give yourself the edge you deserve with nutritional preparation.  Go Condition’s Altitude Support Plus Supplement is packed with adaptogens that help you manage and adapt to stress.  Go Condition’s Whey Protein Plus powders can aid in the repair and growth of skeletal muscle while simultaneously helping you preserve existing muscle mass.  Go Condition’s Replenish Essential Electrolytes powder can help you stay hydrated no matter how high you travel above sea level.  Stock up on your favorite nutritional tool for your next adventure to altitude.