Few things in life are as peaceful and beautiful as bicycling in the mountains. Summertime greenery, crisp air and breathtaking scenery are just a few of the pleasures you'll enjoy when riding at high altitude. But as the saying goes, there's a flip side to everything. When riding at high altitudes, that flip side involves a host of physical challenges. To put it simply, your body goes haywire when you're first exposed to altitude. You feel like you can't breathe. You fatigue quickly. And you may experience other symptoms of altitude sickness. This should not, however, scare you away from high-altitude riding. Understand what to expect and how to minimize the initial discomfort to make your bicycle adventure splendid.
Acclimatize slowly. If you go from riding at sea level in Florida to cycling the Rocky Mountains at 10,000 feet, you will feel immediate effects of altitude. This is because at high altitudes there is less oxygen and your body does not yet have enough red blood cells to transport the scarce amount of oxygen to your working muscles. Within a few days, your body begins to produce more red blood cells, keeping the fatigue at bay longer. In time, you will adjust but according to Andrew Luks, pulmonary specialist at the University of Washington, even with acclimatization, you can't expect to ever have sea-level performance at high altitudes.
Drink plenty of water. There's less oxygen in the air at high altitudes, causing you to breathe at an increased rate. Since your body loses water when you exhale, this increased respiration will magnify water loss. The lower humidity levels at high altitudes will further compound this effect. If you have a delayed thirst response because your body isn't accustomed to these new fluid requirements, quick dehydration can result. Your fluid requirements are also increased as your body boosts its blood volume in an effort to more effectively transport oxygen. At moderate altitudes, most women need approximately 2.2 liters of water each day. Depending on your activity and the level of altitude, you will need to increase fluid intake as necessary.
Expect a little discomfort. It's common to experience headaches, dizziness and difficulty sleeping when you're first exposed to high altitudes. You will adapt, but there is going to be a brief period of discomfort that you won't be able to entirely avoid.
Wear sunscreen and protective clothing. Ultraviolet radiation increases 4 to 5 percent for every 1,000 feet above sea level. If you're fair-skinned, you're especially susceptible to sunburns. Also, wear sunglasses with UV protection to prevent damage to your eyes.
Supplement with green tea extract and sodium bicarbonate. At high altitudes, your working muscles produce more free radicals, which can reduce performance. Combat this by taking an antioxidant-rich green tea extract supplement. Sodium bicarbonate can also improve your performance at high altitudes by acting as a buffer to the increased blood pH caused by altitude. Take .2 to .4 grams of sodium bicarbonate per kilogram of body weight before activity.
- Bicycling: Altitude 101: The Akinny on Thin-air Science
- Cycling News: The Highs and Lows of Altitude Training
- Adventure Cycling Association: Equipment & Elevation Info
- Bicycling: Lance's High Altitude Healing
- Wilderness Medical Society: http://www.wms.org/news/altitude.asp
- Mayo Clinic: Water: How Much Should You Drink Every Day?
- Make sure you're in good shape before you attempt to train at high altitudes. For example, if you're new to cycling, spend time riding at more moderate altitudes to develop your aerobic and muscular endurance before you shock your body with thin air.
- Always consult with your doctor before beginning a new exercise program. If you begin to experience severe symptoms of altitude sickness, such as confusion, tightness in the chest or breathlessness, see a doctor immediately.
Jessica Bell has been working in the health and fitness industry since 2002. She has served as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. Bell holds an M.A. in communications and a B.A. in English.