This summer I took a trip to Lander, Wyoming to climb in Wild Iris. This locale is approximately 9,000 feet higher my typical existence in which I can literally see the Atlantic Ocean from my office.
For the first few days in Lander I could definitely feel the altitude. The hikes seemed more exhausting than they should have been and I needed tons of water just to avoid getting a headache.
What was the cause? Elevation of course! According to the literature, it takes multiple weeks to adapt to living and performing athletically at elevation. Which sucks if you have a limited amount of vacation time and you are only at altitude for a few days at a time.
How Quickly Do you Adapt to Altitude?
The consensus among experts is that an athlete becomes fully adapted to high altitude (2,000m – 3,000m) within 2-3 weeks of arrival from sea level. Places like Lander, Wyoming, climbing areas in the Front Range of Colorado, Ceuse in France and many more boast altitudes many thousands of feet above sea level.
So if you’re like me and you only get a week or two to climb somewhere up high, expect that you will need to take special care when adapting to the altitude.
Part of me hates bringing this up since we climbers are so talented at creating excuses already, but facts are facts. It takes time to adapt to elevation. Which begs the question, is there a way to prepare for a high altitude trip if you are a flat-lander? And even more than that? Or what if you aren’t at a high elevation but your climbing destination has a famously heinous approach?
Long, Nasty Approaches
Some approaches really suck – high elevation or not. Personally, I am not accustomed to exceptionally brutal approaches. However, I am aware that places like Ceuse and Rocky Mountain National Park, can be physically demanding before you even get on the rock. Based on Steve Bechtel’s What to Train to Send your Project flow chart (pictured below), if you are completely wasted by the approach, you may benefit from adding a touch of cardio endurance training to your routine.
Example: preparing for a long approach in the Alpine
To illustrate the point, here is an extreme example of someone who might benefit from some general endurance training (e.g. running). Let’s say you are a boulderer who lives at sea level. You do not have any experience with general aerobic fitness training – no high school sports, no random 5Ks, no spin classes, nothing. You then choose a boulder project in the alpine that you want to send on a one week trip to Colorado. You must hike for two hours before working on your boulder problem (I’m looking at you, James Lucas).
If this is you – you have two factors working against you. Firstly, the hike is probably going to be very exhausting for you. The second, your aerobic energy system’s rate of recovery in between your attempts on the boulder problem is going to be compromised by the altitude. In this case, if you have the time, you can see how it might be helpful to add some general cardio to your training prior to your trip. It would be a shame to have strong enough fingers for your project with a pair of lungs that aren’t ready for the hike.
Though this example may seem extreme, you see the point. If you are headed into an environment that is going to tax your cardiovascular system in terms of a long approach or high altitude, it might be helpful to add some general cardio to your training in preparation for your trip. Again, maybe it won’t be so helpful if you already feel fit enough for a long hike, but if you don’t, a marginal amount of running may help.
Can running help with faster altitude adaptation?
To my own chagrin (though I am not surprised), there is no specific research covering the effects of running for rock climbers that are training for a high altitude climbing trip. However, when reviewing the running literature on this topic, a bit of insight can be gained.
For runners training at sea level and racing at altitude, the literature advises that it is ideal to show up 2-3 weeks before the race to acclimate to the elevation. However, if this is not possible some runners advise trying to show up just 18-48 hours before the race start time in an effort to race before the effects of the altitude set in. Whether you show up twelve hours before start time or two days seems to be a matter of preference. Unfortunately for climbers, we are planning on trying to perform for presumably many days – not just the few hours of a race.
What this means for Sea-Level Climbers
What I deduce from this is that runners have not figured out a way to completely train at sea level for maximal running performance at high altitudes. According to research on running, the best way to be prepared is to give yourself plenty of time to acclimate. Again, not super helpful for those with limited time in the Alpine. So what does this mean for climbers headed on a high altitude trip? If you are a climber at sea level trying to perform at altitude, are you screwed? Of course not!
Although we can learn a lot from the running community, climbing and running are not created equal. While a distance runner will depend almost entirely on their aerobic energy system, climbers are more diverse in the energy systems used doing a route or boulder problem. A climber typically is not climbing continuously for the same amount of time that a runner is running (unless you are on some insanely long multi-pitch routes). So while you might be huffing and puffing on the hike, your finger strength didn’t decrease by 50% because you went up a few thousand meters. You didn’t forget how to heel hook just because you’re in an alpine environment. The change in altitude matters, but it isn’t everything.
My Own Experience
When I went to Wild Iris this summer, I was able to do my second ever 5.12, Butch Pocket and the Sundance Pump. I did it in a couple of sessions and I never felt that being out of breath was the reason I was falling. I didn’t feel that I was any more pumped than I would have been if the route were at sea level. My training for my trip to Wild Iris did not incorporate any running or generalized cardiovascular training and I managed to accomplish my goals for the trip.
However, I will say that I may add a bit of running to my training for climbing at altitude in the future. If only because I f*ing hate hiking and it would be nice for the hikes to suck a bit less.
To Run or Not to Run
There are many lenses to view the debate on running and climbing. Make sure to read the entire series on this subject. There will be one more installment after this where I will gather expert opinions on the most optimal way to add running to your training if you choose to do so.
Here are links to the entire series:
What do you think? Do you adapt well to altitude or do you have a hard time? Has running prior to a high-altitude trip helped you adapt? Leave a comment or send me an email to share your experience!