One of the challenges of taking on some of the epic hikes and mountain climbs on your adventurous bucket list is that many hikers live in coastal cities or inland towns at sea level, which makes for quite a shock to the system when you head up to the mountains to hike or run.
Climbing mountains can be extremely rewarding, though there’s no denying that any type of high-altitude hiking or running is really challenging.
If you aren’t fit enough and haven’t prepared yourself physically, hiking at altitude can quickly become nearly impossible, if not dangerous.
Many people ask how to train for high altitude hiking and running. Is it possible to prepare for high altitude hiking at sea level?
In this guide, we will discuss how to train for high altitude hiking and running.
We will cover:
- What Is Considered a High Altitude for Hiking?
- How to Train for High Altitude Hiking and Running
Let’s get started!
What Is Considered a High Altitude for Hiking?
Some hikers assume that any mountain they climb is considered high altitude, and depending on the elevation where you live year-round, any sort of elevation may feel like it’s a “high” altitude.
In other words, the concept of high altitude is somewhat relative.
Hikers and runners who live at (or below) sea level often start to feel the effects of altitude when they get above 6,000 feet (1,828 meters), while hikers who already live several thousand feet above sea level in the mountains may not feel like effects of elevation until around 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) or higher.
Experienced and professional mountaineers and climbers who spend most of their time living and hiking in the mountains might feel completely normal and strong until they’re up above 14,000 feet (4,267 meters).
Again, whether or not you’re doing “high altitude” hiking depends largely on how the elevation of the hike compares to where you live and what your body is used to.
With that said, the aforementioned situations serve as pretty good guidelines for what qualifies as high-altitude hiking for beginners through advanced climbers:
- For novice hikers, anything above 6,000 feet (1,828 meters) may be considered high altitude hiking.
- For intermediate hikers who have done some hiking at elevation, any elevation above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) can start to feel challenging.
- Experienced hikers (as well as everyone) will likely feel the effects of high altitude at elevations above 14,000 feet (4,267 meters).
How to Train for High Altitude Hiking and Running
The best way to train for high altitude hiking and running is going to higher elevations for your workouts, but unfortunately, this isn’t possible for most people.
Fortunately, it’s still possible to try and prepare your body for hiking at altitude, which can reduce some of the side effects of exercising at a high elevation.
Here are some tips for how to train for high altitude hiking and running:
#1: Build Your Aerobic Base
One of the best things you can do to train for high altitude hiking and running is to focus on building your aerobic fitness as much as possible before you head off to the mountains for your trek.
Because the atmospheric pressure drops as the elevation increases, the relative proportion of oxygen in the air decreases compared to sea level. This is why people sometimes say the air at high altitudes is “thinner.”
As a result, for every breath you take up in the mountains, you’re getting less oxygen than you would be at sea level.
Therefore, any sort of physical activity, such as hiking and running, feels that much harder. You have to breathe faster and harder to get an equal amount of oxygen than you’d get at sea level.
For this reason, training your cardiovascular system to be as efficient and strong as possible is key to not feeling completely breathless and like your heart rate is through the roof when you head off for high-altitude hiking.
Cardio workouts like running, swimming, cycling, rowing, climbing stairs, jumping rope, and cross-country skiing are great ways to develop your cardiovascular fitness for running and hiking at elevation.
Gradually increase the duration of your cardio workouts.
You’ll also want to do full-day hikes that replicate the length of time you’ll be hiking per day during your altitude adventure.
Since the intensity and energy expenditure of your workout will be much higher hiking at high altitude than at sea level, you don’t want to have to also contend with the added endurance challenge of hiking way longer.
The latter you can fully prepare for by making sure you do plenty of long hikes and have more than enough stamina to handle the distances you’ll be hiking at altitude.
If you live in a city where you don’t have access to trails, build up the duration of a really long walk once or twice per week, 4-8 hours or so, depending on how much hiking you’ll be doing per day at altitude.
#2: Do HIIT Training
In addition to building a solid aerobic base through steady-state cardio workouts, you can further strengthen your heart and train your body to perform at higher intensities through high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
Once or twice per week, swap out your steady-state workout for an interval-based workout.
During the “hard” intervals, your heart rate should be getting to at least 80% of your maximum heart rate.
This will get your body accustomed to meeting the high demand for oxygen and recovering as quickly as possible.
#3: Wear a Heavy Pack
Take whatever type of pack weight you’ll be contending with at altitude and multiply it by 1.5 or 2, depending on your body weight and the weight of the pack.
Do your hikes at home with this heavier pack as you prepare for high altitude hiking.
Even a light pack can feel like a super heavy burden when hiking at altitude, so getting comfortable with carrying a lot more physical weight can help your relatively lighter pack at altitude feel manageable.
Of course, you don’t want to overdo it, and if you feel any joint pain or back pain, you’ll want to forgo this tip.
In general, a hiking pack should not be much more than 25% of your body weight.
For example, if you weigh 175 pounds (79.5 kg), your pack shouldn’t be more than 43 pounds or 18 kg.
You can also hike or walk in a weighted vest if carrying a pack around town would make you feel silly.
#4: Climb Stairs
The StairMaster, or climbing stadium stairs, is one of the best ways to prepare for any type of mountain climbing, but it’s a particularly good way to train for high altitude hiking and running.
Stair climbing uses many of the same muscles you’ll use hiking up mountains, and it’s extremely cardiovascularly demanding, so it will help increase your aerobic fitness for high altitude hiking or running.
You can even double your efforts by climbing stairs with a weighted vest.
If you don’t have access to stairs, you can run hill sprints.
#5: Do Strength Training
Because exercising at altitude is most notably difficult from a breathing (heart and lungs) perspective, the focus on how to prepare for high altitude hiking and running often centers on cardio workouts.
However, strength training can be equally important, especially if you’ll be hiking steep climbs.
The stronger your legs are, the less challenging any sort of hiking will be for your muscles at altitude.
This means that the oxygen demand from the muscles as you hike will be less, so your heart and lungs won’t have to work so hard to meet the needs of your body.
Good strength training exercises for hikers include squats, lunges, deadlifts, step-ups, bridges, box jumps, hamstring curls, calf raises, planks, and burpees.
#6: Consider Using High Altitude Training Gear
Though costly, there are some options for gear and equipment that simulate the relative oxygen deprivation of high altitude that you can use at sea level, such as altitude tents, altitude masks, and altitude-adjusted training rooms (found in some high-end training facilities).
#7: Drink More Water
Not only will you need to drink more water once you actually arrive at your destination, since the body’s need for water and the risk of dehydration increases with elevation, but you should also start drinking more in the week leading up to the trip.
This will increase your blood volume, which will improve the efficiency of your heart.
For reference, research demonstrates that respiratory water loss at high altitudes may be increased to 1900 mL per day in men and 850 mL per day in women, and urinary water loss may increase up to 500 mL per day as well.
Mountain hiking or running not only rewards you with some of the most picturesque views but also is a fantastic way to get a great workout, enjoy the splendors of nature, and make lifelong memories.
There are several components that should go into how to prepare for high altitude hiking and running to maximize your fitness and decrease the potential effects of exercising at higher elevations.
Being as fit and prepared as possible will allow you to fully enjoy your adventure.
Looking to calculate just how long it will take you to hike your next adventure? Use our tools to help you estimate your hike time with this guide.