A recent mountain biking experience reminded me how dangerous it can be to ignore the effects of high altitude on the human body during exercise. Exercising at high altitudes, especially above 8000 feet, challenges the body mainly because the higher the elevation, the lower the air pressure, and the more difficult it is to get enough air into the lungs to provide the body with adequate oxygen. Even those of us who live in Salt Lake City, at about 4,300 feet, can feel the effects of altitude sickness - mainly fatigue, nausea, dizziness and headaches - when exercising in nearby mountain areas. In extreme cases altitude sickness can be deadly, but even in its mild form it can cause fainting or collapse and require medical treatment.
People exercising at altitudes higher than they're used to are prone to dehydration, according to About.com: Sports Medicine guide Elizabeth Quinn. The decreased air pressure at high altitudes leads to increased breathing, which accelerates water loss, so it's important to drink even more water than you would at your normal altitude. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine, because these aggravate water loss.
Another key to avoiding altitude sickness is to exert yourself a little less and move a little slower than you would at your normal altitude until your body acclimates, a process that takes anywhere from a day to a week depending on how far you've ascended. Take it easy, drink plenty of water, and don't let altitude sickness ruin your day in Utah's mountains.
Photo by Caroline Woodham