The Science of Training for Altitude: No Shortcuts to Success

Sadly in today’s world everyone is seeking shortcuts to achieve their goals quickly. However, when it comes to reaching altitude and conquering mountains, there are no quick fixes. Understanding and embracing this reality can be the key to a successful and enjoyable adventure. As Anatoli Boukreev eloquently stated, “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” It is within these grand landscapes that we find a deeper connection to ourselves and the world around us. Ed Viesturs reminds us that “the summit is just a halfway point,” emphasizing that the journey and the lessons learned along the way are equally significant.


The Role of Aerobic Capacity at Altitude

When venturing into high-altitude environments, such as trekking or mountaineering, it is crucial to develop our aerobic engine and capacity. These activities fall under the category of sub-maximal disciplines, involving repetitive actions at a sub-maximal level.

At that level, an oxidative process takes place—it’s an aerobic process. If you think that you don’t have enough time to engage in such activities and decide to do three high-intensity interval training (HIIT) classes per week instead, it’s important to note that HIIT classes are glycolytic processes. In simpler terms, they rely on burning sugar for fuel and are characterized by short, intense bursts. While HIIT has its benefits, it does not directly contribute to building the required aerobic capacity for altitude.


The Challenge of Aerobic Capacity Development

To effectively adapt to altitude and optimize performance, building aerobic capacity is paramount. It is a time-consuming process that demands consistent dedication. The development of endurance, necessary for conquering mountains, is intricately linked to aerobic capacity.


Burning Fat as Fuel

One significant advantage of focusing on building aerobic capacity is the ability to utilize fat as a fuel source. Engaging in prolonged aerobic activities trains our bodies to rely on fat metabolism rather than sugar metabolism. This metabolic adaptation is beneficial for sustained energy levels and endurance during long treks and mountaineering expeditions.


Accumulating Volume: Time and Priorities

Success at altitude requires not only physical strength but also mental resilience. It is within the crucible of challenge that we discover our true potential.” – Unknown

To achieve success at altitude, investing time and accumulating volume is unavoidable. There are no shortcuts around this fundamental principle. As the unknown author wisely stated, “Success at altitude requires not only physical strength but also mental resilience. It is within the crucible of challenge that we discover our true potential.” The path to the summit is not paved with quick fixes but with dedication, perseverance, and a willingness to prioritize our training.

While some individuals might appear to be outliers, excelling at altitude without a substantial investment of time, they are the exception rather than the rule. Factors such as exceptional genetics or a unique athletic background may contribute to their success. However, for the majority, building aerobic capacity is an essential and time-consuming process.


Balancing Commitments and Training

It is crucial to acknowledge that altitude does not differentiate between a busy CEO with limited time or an overwhelmed parent. The importance lies in setting priorities and finding time for training. By dedicating weekends to engaging in long hikes and incorporating shorter hikes and runs during the week, individuals can gradually build their aerobic capacity over time.


Optimizing Training for Altitude

Don’t get me wrong Interval Training does have it’s place. I’m not anti-HIIT but it’s a tool like a screwdriver, it has it’s place in the whole process, you don’t get out the screwdriver  to cut down a tree or to hammer together the frame  no you use it when it’s time to screw stuff together. Incorporating strategies such as interval training as small part of your program and increasing it’s usage towards the last phase of your training, will improve your muscular endurance and boost your lactate threshold. But you must build a broad base first. The broader the base the higher you can build! Do this and you will have a solid foundation for success at altitude.

While the summit may be the goal, it is the journey that transforms us.” – Unknown

As the unknown author reminds us, “While the summit may be the goal, it is the journey that transforms us.” So just embrace the suck, and enjoy process and the journey.


Remember, success at altitude requires dedication, resilience, discipline.


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Levine BD, Stray-Gundersen J. “Living high-training low”: effect of moderate-altitude acclimatization with low-altitude training on performance. J Appl Physiol. 1997 Jan; 83(1):102-12. doi: 10.1152/jappl.1997.83.1.102. PMID: 9216953.

Hellemans J, Vollaard N, van der Kolk B, et al. The effect of altitude/hypoxia on resistance exercise: a systematic review. Sports Med. 2021 Mar;51(3):601-629. doi: 10.1007/s40279-020-01437-w. PMID: 33428086.

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