Cycling at high altitudes means your body needs to adapt to an environment where there is less oxygen. For cyclists who haven’t quite adapted to the altitude, it’s common to feel altitude sickness. The fitter you are, the faster you will acclimate to high altitudes. We have a majority of our bike tours here in Colorado where the high altitude can affect someone’s cycling ability if they come from low elevation areas.
If you happen to feel dizzy, weak, or even sick at high altitudes, you’re likely experiencing altitude sickness. You tend to feel this way because your body is trying to adapt to the thinner air by breathing faster and more deeply. With this increase in oxygen, your heart rate increases to pump more oxygen to your muscles and your body also creates a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO). Essentially, this hormone stimulates the production of red blood cells. As a result, your body has more red blood cells at its disposal to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of your blood.
Throughout the process of acclimatization, your heart rate and respiration begin to normalize. However, this process doesn’t happen overnight. It may take a few days to acclimate but, you can start preparing yourself for this process before you even arrive. If possible, start with short cycling workouts and build up to longer workouts over several weeks to boost your endurance. Having boosted endurance will help you acclimate much more quickly to high altitude than without. You can also just give yourself more time to acclimate before you ride in high elevation. Both methods work in helping you acclimate to high altitudes.
When riding at high elevations, consider using smaller gears to avoid overexertion which may bring about the feeling of altitude sickness. Also, try riding at a conversational pace and make sure that you are taking in enough nutrition and hydration. Check out our blog on superfoods if you’re interested in learning more about cycling nutrition.