As we head toward the winter months, skiing and snowboarding is on the brain. A lot of us will drive to New Mexico, Colorado or other Rocky Mountain states. A few of us will fly. On the brain will be enjoying some good times on the slopes, hanging out in the lodge, and maybe hitting the hotspots wherever we happen to be.
What’s not on the mind for some: dealing with the realities of altitude and exercise.
Not too long ago, I posted some information on specific exercises you can do to get yourself in shape for ski season. But even the best conditioning won’t necessarily help you with altitude issues if you live in the plains.
I’ve learned a lot about this not through skiing, but mountaineering and backpacking. The elevations I hit are generally higher than what most of you will face on the slopes. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t take altitude issues seriously.
Here in Oklahoma City, most of us live somewhere between 1,000 feet and 1,300 feet above sea level. The air here won’t be much thinner than it would be at sea level. It’s thick and oxygen rich. The highest elevations people in Oklahoma live at are somewhere around 4,200 feet – thinner, but still pretty reasonable. Others live at elevations just over 400 feet.
Contrast that to what you’ll find at the base of most Rocky Mountain ski lifts. Most of them start somewhere between 8,000 and 9,000 feet. The air is remarkably thinner up there. At the top of a lift, you might be as high as 12,000 feet. One of the highest routes on a groomed slope, in Breckenridge, is nearly 13,000 feet, more than 2-1/2 miles above sea level.
Altitude at these heights does a number of things to you. Since there’s much less oxygen, your heart and lungs work a lot harder. To compensate for the lack of oxygen, your body will try to make more red blood cells, which in turn will thicken the blood stream, making your circulatory system work that much harder.
Vigorous exercise at high altitude will make you burn calories at a much higher rate. Since you’ll be breathing more and harder, you will lose a lot of moisture through exhaling. This dehydrating effect is compounded by the fact that the air in the Rockies is already pretty dry.
Thickening blood and dyhydration can cause headaches. Worse, these conditions, plus the increased calorie burn at altitude, can help bring about altitude sickness.
The only cure for altitude sickness is to go a lower elevation. But prevention could help stave off this condition. Some tips and tricks I’ve learned:
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink plenty of water in the days leading up to your trip. Don’t wait till you get to the ski lift to pound down a bottle of water. Start pumping the water down a few days in advance and keep up your hydration pace throughout your stay. You should have water with you as you ski and ride, and drink often, even if you don’t feel particularly thirsty. If you wait until you’re thirsty, it’s pretty much too late.
Eat well. Get in a good balance of carbohydrates and proteins. Bring snacks with you on the mountain and stop to munch every now and then. Keeping your energy level up will help fight the effects of altitude.
Pace yourself. Even if you’re in good shape, you’re not in mountain shape. Your first day on the hill should be measured. As your body acclimates, then you can push yourself more.
Speaking of acclimatizing… You need to give your body time, particularly if you’re flying in to your destination. Spend at least a day getting used to the altitude by taking it easy, going for brisk walks and just allowing your body to adjust.
Learn to love the baby aspirin. This is a standard part of my first-aid kit on the mountain for this reason: Aspirin helps thin the blood, allowing for a more free flow of your bloodstream. Start popping low-dose baby aspirins a day or two before your trip and in the mornings during your stay.
So those are a few things I use to help me feel better on the mountain. I’m sure there’s others, so do your homework and enjoy the slopes.
Speaking of ski season: Winter Park opens today, and Steamboat Springs opens Nov. 25. Get ready to shred!