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Training in the Cold at High Altitude, The Best of Both Worlds

This article originally appeared in RECOIL Issue 43

WARNING!
The exercises and content expressed in this column are for illustrative purposes only. Consult your physician before trying any physical activity or nutritional plan. RECOIL and its contributors are not responsible for any harm or injuries sustained while attempting these techniques.


While at this time of year you’re probably thinking about summer vacations, grilling, and yard chores, the fall isn’t too far off. Many of us will be heading afield to fill the freezer, and while not everyone gets the chance to go on an extreme mountain hunt, training like you’ll be working at altitude and in the cold pays dividends. Not a hunter? Maybe you’re going hiking somewhere, climbing, or perhaps you just love the idea of a HALO (high altitude low opening) jump into northern British Columbia where you’ll be in the mountains for days. Now’s the time to consider changes to your training regimen — leave it until a couple of weeks before and you’ll be way behind the curve. This last scenario, in particular, poses a higher risk for cold-related problems because the exposure is for a prolonged amount of time. Regardless, don’t worry, though. We have you covered.

Cold

Responses: The first step to preparing yourself for the cold is knowing how the body responds to it. It’s important to point out that the human body gains heat through radiation (from the sun), metabolism, and muscle action, with muscle being the most substantial source. Therefore, the amount and intensity of movement can be crucial to staying warm in a cold environment. Without much movement occurring, you’re not going to get a substantial amount of heat either through muscle contractions or metabolism because the increase in movement also causes increases in metabolism.

You lose heat via four different mechanisms: evaporation, conduction, convection, and radiation. Both conduction or convection occurs when a more cooling gas (convection), liquid (convection), or solid (conduction) comes in contact with the body. What you wear and whether you’re in the water or not can undoubtedly affect your temperature regulation. In cold water, you’ll lose heat three to five times faster compared to cold air. Factored into heat loss is your body surface area to mass ratio. So, if you happen to be someone who’s shorter, more muscular, and you have a little bit of extra fat, you’ll handle the cold better than someone who is tall and skinny. That additional muscle and fat will also help as muscle will help generate more heat and fat will have an insulation quality.

When you lose a significant amount of body heat, a few things will occur. As you’ve undoubtedly experienced, shivering will start, which increases heat production due to involuntary muscle contractions and an increased metabolic rate. Over time, shivering leads to higher utilization of carbohydrates as a fuel source — up to 588-percent greater! This makes nutrition, (carbohydrates in particular) vital in cold environments. Additionally, the constriction of blood vessels in your limbs will help keep blood in your torso to maintain the crucial functions of your body and minimize heat loss.

Physical Performance: Cold has been shown to reduce both vertical jump height and agility tasks according to a study examining performance effects after subjects were exposed to 43 degrees F temperatures for 15 minutes in shorts and a T-shirt. So, outside of the discomfort and possible danger of the cold, there can be some substantial performance consequences depending on what tasks you’re taking on.

Preparation: To prepare, your primary focus should be keeping your core (torso) warm at all costs. It’s essential to have an outer layer that is both wind and waterproof, which is probably common sense. Underneath that should be a thicker garment that will do well to insulate and keep you warm. The layer of clothing directly on the skin is ideally going to be one that wicks moisture away from the skin so cotton would be a poor choice as it holds on to moisture and will draw heat away from the body. Of course, you’ll also want to keep your hands and head covered, too.

Next, drink plenty of water, even when you’re not thirsty. Cold exposure seems to have some thirst-blunting effect, making it easy to become dehydrated. As previously stated, carbohydrates are used at a greater rate while shivering, so ensure you’re adequately fueled with an emphasis on complex carbohydrates. Good sources include oatmeal, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and quinoa.

Altitude

Responses: Altitude, like cold, can present some interesting effects on the body. The most notable impact of elevation is the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2). Partial pressure refers to the pressure of a gas within a mixture. To put it simply, the higher you go, the less oxygen you’re able to take in and use with each breath, resulting in hyperventilation.

If you’re in a higher-altitude environment for about two days, hemoglobin concentration increases in your blood. Hemoglobin is the protein portion of a red blood cell that binds with oxygen to transport it through the blood to your tissues. More hemoglobin means more oxygen, which is excellent, right? Well, not necessarily. This increase in hemoglobin only happens due to mild dehydration making your blood a little thicker. And the only way to then compensate for thicker blood is to increase blood pressure and heart rate.

Over time, you’ll acclimate to the elevation and make many adaptations including increased blood volume, increased red blood cells, and an increase in the amount of air inhaled and exhaled.

Physical Performance: In general, the higher the altitude, the more pronounced the effects. This means the intensity at which endurance exercise can be performed is lower compared to sea level. This is true for all individuals of all ages, with high-altitude climbers being the most impacted for the simple fact that they are at the most extreme altitudes. Other events involving exercises that include sprints, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and power don’t appear to be impacted very much. In fact, it’s possible that the lower air resistance could actually improve performance at higher altitudes.

Preparation: There is debate regarding preparation for exercise at altitude. However, we’ll cover two more practical options. First, arrive at the site 12 to 18 hours prior, which is typical for many U.S. collegiate and professional teams. It will minimize the chances of getting acute altitude sickness thereby decreasing performance.

The second option is to train at the same altitude as the event. While your performance will not be as good as at sea level, you’ll still acclimate somewhat to the higher elevation. This is generally not going to be as feasible due to higher elevation training spots not being accessible to most people that live at lower altitude.

If you live near sea level, the best thing you can do before a high-elevation event is to be better trained. Specifically, develop a more robust aerobic system. This occurs through low-intensity, long-duration activities like running, swimming, or really anything that you can do that’s at least 30 minutes long. This can help manage many of the altitude effects like higher blood pressure and heart rate.

Sample Training Program

Building off of the concept of fitness preparing you, here’s a sample workout if you’re doing a physical endeavor at altitude and in cold weather such as the fictitious scenario of HALO jumping into British Columbia. This workout will check many of the boxes necessary for any number of physical endeavors, and the assumption is that you have some prior strength training experience.

Barbell Sumo

– Start with your feet about 2.5 times wider than your shoulders with your feet turned out. The bar should be touching your shins.
– Hinging at your hips and keeping your back flat, sit back and grab the bar.
– Keeping the bar close, push your heels through the floor and stand tall.
– Reverse the movement and return the bar to the starting position.

Tactical Pull-Up

– Grip a bar above you in overhand position with your thumbs on the top side of the bar next to your index fingers.
– Crush the bar and brace your abs.
– Drive your elbows to your sides and pull your shoulder blades together.
– Slowly return to the starting position.

Yoga Push-Up

– Begin in a push-up position.
– Complete the descent of a regular push-up, making sure to keep your chin back.
– Push yourself away from the floor, and just before you reach the top, drive your hips high into a downward dog position.
– Return back to the push-up position.

Barbell Step-Up w/ Front Squat Grip

– Start by holding a barbell in the front squat position, resting on the front of your shoulders, bar touching your neck, and arms crossed to grab the bar on opposite sides.
– Place your foot on top of a box that is high enough to make your top thigh parallel to the floor.
– Drive your front foot through the box to stand tall.
– Return to the starting position.

1/2 Kneeling Anti-Rotation Cable Chop

– Start with feet wide and your arms reached out in front of you holding a rope attachment.
– Allow your arms to move toward the machine without letting your chest or hips rotate.
– Bring the rope across your body as far as you can without rotating still.
– Return to the starting position.

Conclusion

Long story short, don’t let altitude or cold stop you from training. Sure, altitude combined with cold can pose some very real risks, but you can certainly plan ahead to make sure you’re well-prepared.


Elevation Masks

Elevation training masks are supposed to replicate the effects of being at a higher altitude by creating hypoxia (deficiency of oxygen to tissues) similarly to elevation. But for that to occur, the mask would have to have some sort of mechanism to decrease the amount of oxygen in the air, which will induce hypoxia. Instead, the mask reduces the amount of air inhaled through airflow restriction, which showed a decrease in performance as compared to a control group. This restriction can cause over-activity of the muscles of the neck, upper back, and chest that aid in inhalation. According to one study, “The ETM [elevation training mask] does not simulate altitude, but works more like a respiratory training device.”


About the Author
Ryne Gioviano is the owner of Achieve Personal Training & Lifestyle Design located in Aurora, Illinois. He earned his master’s degree in exercise physiology and is a certified personal trainer through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. You can find more information at www.Achieve-PersonalTraining.com or reach him on Twitter and Instagram at @rgioviano.


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