The Sherpa population in Tibet is famously known for their extreme levels of high-altitude fitness, often easily conquering Mount Everest climbs alongside seasoned and extremely fit climbers who have been training for months or years. Perhaps you've seen Nepalese Sherpas parodied in a popular Simpson's cartoon, in which Homer Simpson attempts to climb a difficult peak and the "lazy" Sherpas drag him up the mountainside at night in his sleeping bag as he snores away.
However, Sherpa altitude performance capabilities aren't just the stuff of cartoons. A recent study actually found a mutation in the Sherpa population that allows them to have increased levels of an enzyme responsible for helping the cell's powerhouse -- the mitochondria -- use oxygen to produce energy.
But what if you're not a genetically superior human being with increased oxygen utilization capacity? Are there other ways that you can get the lungs of a mountaintop Sherpa, huff and puff less, and make exercise easier at both altitude or sea level? You're about to find out.
Why It's Hard To Exercise At Altitude
Recently, many of my friends and also several athletes I coach competed in the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe triathlon. Unfortuantely, this event turned out to be one of the most difficult races on the face of the planet, with the highest dropout and "did not finish" (DNF) rate of any other Ironman triathlon event. It may not come as a surprise to you that the 6,500-foot elevation of Lake Tahoe played a large role in the difficulty of this event.
But you don't need to be competing in an Ironman triathlon to experience the difficulties presented to your body by being at altitude. Just a few weeks ago, I attended a wilderness survival camp at 9,000 feet in Colorado. Despite my higher-than-average levels of fitness, I was huffing and puffing heavily within just a few minutes of hiking at this elevation.
So why is it so hard for even fit individuals to exercise at altitude? While there are entire books devoted to the topic of altitude and exercise, the basic issue is that there is significantly less oxygen in the air as altitudes approach about a mile or higher (over 5,000 feet), and as a result, your body simply has less oxygen to fuel brain, organ and muscle activity. In other words, the air is "thinner."
The first thing that happens when you get exposed to this thinner air is that your respiratory rate and heart rate speeds up -- whether you're resting or exercising. But for many people, altitude sickness can also result -- with uncomfortable headache, fatigue, stomach illness, dizziness, and sleep disturbance at altitude. And the unfortunate fact is that exercise can aggravate these issues even more.
So what can you do about it? Whether you plan on exercising at altitude, climbing Mt. Everest, visiting a friend in Colorado, or simply want to make exercise slightly easier no matter where you're working out, here are four tips to help you get the lungs of a mountaintop Sherpa:
1) Eat iron-rich foods. Your red blood cells use iron to help deliver oxygen to muscles, so if you're low on iron, you may experience anemic-like symptoms whether you're at altitude or sea level. In addition to cooking with cast-iron, you can also review some of the best iron-rich foods. These include lentils, spinach, sesame seeds, dark leafy greens, thyme, oregano and of course, steak.
2) Use hypoxia, resisted or restricted breathing. One of the endurance training strategies I've written about is to implement a variety of different fitness devices to challenge your lungs and body with altitude simulation. These strategies include wearing a resisted breathing mask, using a resisted breathing device, swimming using a snorkel with restricted air flow, sleeping in an altitude tent, training with a hypoxic air generator and even using proper breathing patterns throughout your work day and a habitual deep diaphragmatic breathing pattern.
3) Hydrate. As you've already learned, the atmosphere at higher elevations contains less oxygen and lower pressure. This can cause water to evaporate from your lungs and skin more quickly than lower altitudes. When combined with your higher heart rate and faster breathing rate, this can result in a fast track to dehydration. So staying properly hydrated at high altitudes is important, and you should make it your goal to never "go thirsty" -- which may require drinking nearly twice as much water as you're used to! Of course, even if you're not at altitude, adequate levels of hydration are going to make your workout much more comfortable. Here's an article with more information on how much water you should be drinking on an average day.
4) Use natural supplements. Specific natural substances have been shown to help alleviate altitude sickness and to assist with oxygen capacity. For example, rats dosed with vitamin C can endure higher altitudes in lab simulations, at levels of about the equivalent of 2-3g per day in humans. Antioxidants such as vitamin E, glutathione and alpha-lipoic acid have all been shown to have a similar effect. The amino acid L-Glutamine can also have a protective effect at high altitudes. Finally, adaptogenic herbs such as rhodiola and ginko biloba can also help with lung function and oxygen carrying capacity at both sea level and altitude.
If you combine these four strategies with a good training program (such as my top recommended workout for becoming a better athlete), you're going to find that you breathe much more easily during your workouts, and you handle altitude better too!
If you have more questions about these four ways to get better lungs, or how to increase performance at altitude, then comment below.
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