Can You Train For High Altitude?

Can you train your body to cope with high altitude (before you go)?

A question we often get asked. It is not as simple a question as it may appear.

And what about these ‘Chambers’ – can they not help to train us?

This short article aims to be straightforward and non technical so if you are not a medical professional and a trekker aiming to trek up to between 4000m – 6500m or thereabouts, this is for you.

The altitude range stated covers just about any trekking route in the Himalaya (including the trekking peaks), all of Africa (including Kilimanjaro) and South America.

We all know that breathing with less oxygen is more difficult, particularly when your lungs are working harder when you are ascending. You can prove this as much as you wish on a machine with a mask restricting the oxygen flow but it won’t help you acclimatise.

The process of acclimatisation is far greater than just breathing. Your whole body has to adjust to the thinner air as you ascend, and slowly. There’s no rushing this process; nature will see to that!

And the Chambers?

‘Chambers’ is a rather outdated term now so we point to the Altitude Centre in London as one such facility and they offer a whole range of consultations, sessions and equipment. They can help to a certain point provided you’re willing to spend the time and money. The Pod pictured is available in Manchester only.

By understanding the acclimatisation process, you can make your own mind up if you feel these facilities can help you or not.

There’s no great need to go into finite medical details about what happens to your body but suffice to say that as you get higher, your body will start to feel the effects. Medical facts state that you can be suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS, aka altitude sickness) from as low as 2500m but unless you are very susceptible, most of us won’t feel any great effects until you get to about 3500m (Ben Nevis is 1345m).

So What Does Happen?

In general terms, you may experience some (or all!) of the list below. Most of them, if taken in isolation, are not life threatening and can be coped with but clearly, they can be of concern. The more of them you experience, the more cautious you should be.

The key component in that lot is the headache.

Let’s take them one by one:

  • Fatigue – difficult to attribute to AMS alone as you’re going to be tired from trekking anyway.
  • Loss of appetite – quite common and of concern as if you don’t keep your fuel levels up, you will run out of energy sooner or later.
  • Nausea – similar to a loss of appetite only you’re losing fluids too.
  • Insomnia – a lack of sleep will slowly wear you down.
  • Vivid dreams – no real problem; at least you are sleeping!
  • Change of bowel movement – common when travelling abroad anyway, could be hygiene, the water, food. Don’t be too concerned if it’s controlled, be conscious of the fluid loss.
  • Headache – I leave this one to the end as it’s the most important. Some say, if you have no headache, you don’t have AMS and they have a point.

The headache is commonly known to be the most, if not sole, telling symptom of High Altitude Cerebal Endema (HACE). If left untreated, it can lead to death.
If you have a headache related to AMS, you will know about it. It’s not a feeble thing, it’ll be a thumper.
Take that as a sign you shouldn’t be there and descend OR stay where you are at least. Importantly, do not ascend any further.

So How Do You Acclimatise?

Let’s be clear. Anyone can acclimatise, given time. We all acclimatise at different rates so for some, without sufficient time, you may feel as if you didn’t acclimatise properly.

Recognised guidelines are accepted in the mountaineering world about the rate of safe ascent. They are a net ascent of 300m (1000′) per day with a rest day every 3rd day.

They are called ‘guidelines’ for very good reason. With the best will in the world, we often cannot control where night stops are located (and their altitude). The terrain invariably dictates where you can stop (safely). Those guidelines are therefore often broken but common sense should prevail rather than a deliberate act to defy them.

Drink lots. Hydration is vital to maintaining the body so don’t hold back.

If you follow the ascent guidelines, ascend slowly, stay hydrated, there should be no reason why you should not get to high altitude destinations safely.

Back to the Altitude Centre facilities. Science is a wonderful thing and there are lots of things that they can do. What they can’t do is replicate the number of days you spend at high altitude, which leads to the changes within your body UNLESS you spend that number of days in a Chamber or POD or some form of tent, eating, sleeping, the lot. And that takes time and money.

The Altitude Centre in London for example, charges £129 for a Mountaineering Consultation (60 mins), exercise sessions from £20 and you can ‘rent a system for home use’ from £225 per month. There is also the Altitude POD, which is available in Manchester. It costs £200 per session (60 mins).

What happens on the mountain is unpredictable and a good degree of flexibility and robustness is always required. In my view, your money is best spent on any additional days you can afford on the mountain (in terms of both time and money) providing that flexibility to allow natural safe ascent. That extra day or days can make all the difference.

Ultimately, ascending to high altitude destinations within the limits of this article is not difficult or complicated. You just need to have a good understanding of the process, respect it, be prepared to adjust if necessary and spend the required amount of time putting it into action.


About the Author:

Terry Crosby is the founder and co-owner of Travel and Trek Limited. He started the Company in 2005 after an long military career, which ultimately gave him the skills to set up, run, manage and develop what is now a global adventure travel company. He has extensive experience in all of the countries the company travel to and is an ex Mountain Leader and Arctic Survival Instructor.