Altitude - what is it and how to manage

Picture it…

It’s the first day of the long anticipated ski trip you’ve been saving up for and looking forward to for months.  You’re slightly groggy; the plane was delayed so you landed at an antisocial hour; plus all of the palaver with the baggage, but you and your crew are at the top of the slopes with ear-to-ear grins slapped across your faces…

Suddenly, your vision becomes tunnelled, your ears start to ring and your heart pounds as if it is auditioning for a part in Stomp. You are aware that your breathing quickens – in fact, it starts to leave your lungs faster than you are able to suck it in and your perception of up and down is distorted. Finally, to top it all off, you vomit down your new salopettes (although that may be due to the one too many airport beers!).

Believe it or not, these symptoms can all be explained by the same reason that professional athletes choose to train in the mountains to optimise their performance…



Measured in Pascals (named after the French scientist Blaise Pascal, who I am sure would take the relevant precautions when shredding glaciers) the pressure of air being pushed into your lungs exponentially decreases the higher up the mountain you are. 

Now, whilst this lack of pressure will not affect our inhalation/exhalation process, there are two reasons why it still plays a big part in getting oxygen into our blood and therefore to our muscles, brain and organs.

Firstly, the higher up you are from sea level the more spread out the air (and therefore oxygen molecules) are. Generally, an average mountain breath will have 60-70% (depending on altitude) of the oxygen compared to your normal boring sea level breath.

Secondly, the extra pressure is actually responsible for forcing the oxygen molecules through the membrane in your lungs and into the blood stream. This, coupled with our previous Pascally problem, turns the strain on our heart and lungs up a notch

Although your experience may not be as dramatic as my metaphor-studded scenario, here are 5 top tips for minimising the chances of your body having any adverse reaction to this tantalising but hostile environment.

Tip 1 - Don’t Panic!

The decrease in oxygen availability as you ascend triggers adrenaline production (the fight or flight response) in your body’s attempt to normalise blood oxygen saturation.  This will cause your heart to race and your breathing rate to increase.  IT IS NORMAL!

All panicking will do is cause these effects to heighten making your experience even worse!  It is the hardest thing to do at the time but try and relax as the effects of the adrenaline will wear off after about 5-10 minutes.

Tip 2 – The 24-Hour Rule

We get it, you’ve been waiting to let your hair down for months now so when you arrive of course you’re going to “have it large”.  But actually the first 24 hours spent up in the clouds is when your body makes the largest amount of its changes to perfect the acclimatisation process.  Ease yourself in, not only with the riding, but also with the “extra curricular activities” as that one too many piste beers could tip you over the edge.

Tip 3 - A Gradual Ascent is Key

For a large proportion of shredders, even the valley of the mountains is higher than their regular resting altitude so hopping straight into a cable car could really throw off your body’s equilibrium.  At the very start of the holiday make sure to give your body time to settle at the low altitudes before stepping on the Grande Motte!

Also, if you feel that you have gone up too fast don’t be afraid to come down.  It’s easy to try and brave the storm but sometimes you may just need to spend a little time in medium territory before entering the heavens!

Tip 4 – The 10 Breaths

If you find yourself in a situation where you start to feel any of these symptoms try the 10 breath rule.  You need to find somewhere you are able to shut your eyes and take 10 slow deep breaths.

Breathe in through your nose and try and fill your lungs as much as you can, allowing your shoulders rise.  When you breathe out try and force all the air out of your lungs, relaxing your shoulders and letting them drop down as far as possible. 

Repeat for 10 breaths then re-assess your situation.  If you still feel panicked, then repeat.

Tip 5 – Drink lots of Water

This should go without saying however I am well aware that often in alpine territory water gets substituted with either a fizzy hoppy substance or some warm fermented grapes… 

Skiing/boarding are taxing sports that require a lot of energy and cause your body to sweat.  If your body doesn’t have enough water to maintain normal conditions, then how do you expect it to be able to cope with mountain conditions?

At the end of the day there isn’t much you can do if you are unlucky enough to suffer from altitude sickness, however knowing these few tips should give you a good few weapons in your arsenal to try if you do suffer from it.

If you are aware that you do suffer then there are a few medications you can try to alleviate the symptoms, which you can find from the local pharmacy but paracetamol and ibuprofen will offer a little relief!

Enjoy your time on the slopes but if the pressure really has got to you, there is always the option of coming to the Langley Tignes 2100 hotel and having a day in the Spa, a nice relaxing or sports massage, even take a Yoga or Pilates class!

The purpose of this blog is to provide general information and educational material relating to exercise, physiotherapy and injury management. Bonne Santé Alps has made every effort to provide you with correct, up-to-date information. In using this blog, you agree that information is provided 'as is, as available', without warranty and that you use the information at your own risk. We recommend that you seek advice from a fitness or healthcare professional if you require further advice relating to exercise or medical issues.

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