February 4-17 sees the return of the Alpine World Ski Championships to Åre in Sweden – after the Olympics the biggest winter sports event in the world. From the punishment of Downhill, through Slalom and Super G – which mashes the demands of downhill with the finesse of slalom – men and women from across the globe take to the slopes in search of glory. (Keep your eyes open and you might even see hopefuls from Ghana and Haiti, countries not exactly famous for snowfall.)
Skiing is all about moving your body under gravity’s spell. But along with the dazzle of snow and the excitement of speed comes the demand of exercising hard at altitude. Elite athletes across the sporting spectrum train at altitude, seeking microseconds of competitive advantage – Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe and Jonathan Brownlee are all fans. (Up to 95 per cent of Olympic athletes train at altitude.) But there’s increasing evidence to suggest that it can also be good for mere mortals. Nor do you have to head for the Himalayas – an altitude tent can nicely simulate the same conditions. So what’s it all about?
At high altitudes, the air contains less oxygen. (Opinions differ about the exact height above sea-level that makes it high altitude, but it’s usually tagged at 2000 metres, although the benefits can kick in lower down.) Expose your body to thinner air for any length of time and it starts making more red blood cells – maximising your body’s ability to make use of whatever oxygen is around. Return with this boosted blood to ordinary altitudes and chances are there’ll be a lot more lead in your sporting pencil. Those red blood cells are packed with oxygen and nutrients for hungry muscles.
Interestingly, for those less in need of saving nanoseconds on the slopes or tracks, spending time in thinner air is linked to a host of health and wellbeing benefits. Along with improved aerobic fitness – and stronger heart and lungs – hypoxic exposure (the scientific name for it) can help with anxiety and depression and improve sleep – critical for recovery after exercise. On the therapeutic side it is linked to improvements in arthritis, diabetes and even some spinal cord injuries. And if that weren’t enough, time spent at high altitude is also associated with weight loss: yes it can actually make you slimmer.
Acclimatisation is Key
As with all good things though, moderation – or in this case, acclimatisation, is key. Overtraining at altitude has been linked to weakened immune systems, muscle loss and stress responses in the body. Go too high too fast and there’s a risk of altitude sickness. This can include headaches, sleepiness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and loss of balance. At the extreme end are life-threatening conditions such as cerebral or pulmonary oedema – fluid build-up in the brain or lungs. But go gradually, stay hydrated, keep an eye on yourself and the benefits can be yours.