Is your mountain fitness program limited in its ability to adapt your body to the mountain environment?
Wandering and exploring new paths in the mountains continues to increase in great numbers. With the intrigue comes the normal issues of humans not being prepared for what they may encounter. Exposure. Wildlife. Hypoxia. However, a larger equation is often the most overlooked either because of ignorance, assumption of capability, or pure ego. The equation of human adaptability to mountain environments.
Often the only concern is acclimatization and cardiovascular fitness, but both have many variables regularly missed in training as well as many other important factors. Acclimatization is the process of the body altering its internal environment to being more sustainable in the reduced availability of oxygen of the external environment. Cardiovascular fitness also alters the inner world with an improved metabolic state to feed the energy requirements from the demands of activity. With the changes, the body maintains a more homeostatic inner world to sustain life in the new external environment. Note the word sustain. Sustain does not mean thrive. So what other variables may be important to assess and address in mountain environments?
One may be lung volume, meaning how much air you can breathe in and especially breathe in over time while walking up an incline such as a mountain. If you cannot breathe an optimal and similar volume of air with each breath over time, then your brain begins to require your muscles to drive more breaths to make up for the reduction in respiration volume. As you can imagine, the demand for more breaths can increase stress on your muscular system impeding forward motion. When this turn occurs, the heart rate can increase from the added demands necessary to deliver nutrients to the muscle tissue's increased requirements. The individual can also begin to feel ill and lightheaded from the stress response from these increased demands. By using a spirometer in training much like many do with a heart rate monitor, an individual can determine through regular measurements how their training is affecting their breathing. Some training may have a negative response to breathing leading to undesired training effects.
Another major issue is the vast majority of those active in the mountains have inadequate metabolisms to handle the needs of activity in mountain environments. Matching cardiovascular training to the metabolism needed for human adaptation to the demands of the mountain is key to creating a fitness foundation. Knowing most mountain activities are slow in nature with brief rounds of high demand activity and seeing so many individuals using sugars and carbs as their primary fuel to maintain energy, the curiosity leads to thoughts of this not being the optimal path. Using quick sources of energy regularly to maintain forward motion can impede constant progress because we should be using a fuel for recovery rather than trying to maintain our perception of energy through bursts. One would think using a source of fuel matching the activity's demands would make more sense. How does one go about altering their state to using a long-term source of fuel, such as fat? The two key variables are training at a low heart rate zone to keep out of the anaerobic state and doing the activity after a long period of not eating, such as first thing in the morning. Following these training periods with higher fat meals rather than trying to restore depleted glycogen stores and repeating this pattern with most of the overall fitness program, the individual's system adapts to the new conditions and uses a more fat-adapted metabolic state over time. The newly efficient metabolism can carry the individual further into the mountains without the constant need to ingest quick energy sources.
The final variable impacting a human's ability to adapt to mountain environments is how much strength they can maintain after going up because after all, they must go back down. The simplest way to assess this without going up a mountain is to choose closely related strength training exercises to what may be expected and performing them in a typical training session. When completed the individual should go straight to an extended cardiovascular exercise also matching typical mountain conditions such as carrying a 30-pound pack up an incline for around an hour, then immediately returning to the previously performed strength exercises at the same weights performed. This can be expected to take around 2 hours depending on the variables. If the individual cannot match at least 80% the same strength performance, then more training is required to become more adapted to the mountain environment. The real challenge in doing this correctly is the knowledge of exercise and the ability to strategize the optimal assessment matching the goal for the individual.
With these three assessment tools, one can begin to reduce the challenge for a larger population trying to adapt to mountain environments. The basic fitness assessment of fitness centers and progression training in cross fit gyms do not match the needs of all humans trying to adapt and thrive in mountain environments although their principles are vital in parts of the training protocol. We need to look deeper into the human adaptation to mountain environments and be more creative in finding ways in how we assess and address our adaptation.