Travelling at 3000m and the effects of altitude in Huaraz

F our years ago Lionel Messi famously threw up in a football match against Bolivia; Bolivia’s stadium is at 3800m, and the world’s best player couldn’t quite cut it at that altitude. He did, however, recently score a hat-trick in Quito against Ecuador, whose stadium stands at around 2800m. Chances are, therefore, that he’d probably do okay at Huaraz’s 3000m Estadio Rosas Pampa, against either Sport Rosario or F.C. Sport Ancash. Having seen both teams play, I think it’s likely Messi would score a few.

Some level of altitude sickness is something most tourists experience in Huaraz, Cusco, or any of Peru’s other Andean cities, and the subject has become a talking point with guides as they liberally dish out coca tea. The level of discomfort can be anything from a dull headache to incapacitating breathlessness. Huaraz sits at 3000m, which offers almost no real threat and most people will acclimatise just fine. Most of us might feel a bit wobbly though, perhaps with a headache, but according to altitude.org, spending a few weeks here might even help you realise some benefits upon returning to sea level.

That being said, Peruvian football is played up and down the Andes, from sea-level to 3800m, but Sport Rosario are still having a rubbish season, and Sport Ancash are on the verge of plummeting into the abyss. Both teams seem incapable of capitalising on any acclimatisation-based advantages, so unfortunately, it seems that when you head back to the coast, you won’t be blessed with superhuman powers. So what exactly are the effects of altitude on the body during a workout?

To put it simply, at higher altitudes there is less oxygen in the air, and therefore it is more difficult to extract that oxygen and get it into your bloodstream. The acclimatisation process improves the delivery of oxygen to your muscles, eventually making it easier to function normally. Altitude exposure is actually used by many top athletes during training. ‘Live high, train low’, helps the body to realise the benefits of increased haemoglobin; your body will produce extra red blood cells to help the flow of oxygen. The typical altitudes used for such a regime are between 2000m and 2500m.

For those of us who are not just here to enjoy the view from the Plaza de Armas, Huaraz offers the opportunity to head for 4000m+ on the well-trodden Santa Cruz Trek, as well as providing a gateway for bigger thrill seekers heading to 5000m+ on Matheo or Pisac. You may even fancy scaling 6768m on Peru’s highest mountain, Huascarán. When signing up for these expeditions, however, do so with caution and do your research. When heading up to 5000m+ we have to move extremely slowly to allow our bodies to adapt to the change in oxygen levels. Speeding up to these altitudes can be extremely dangerous.

There is no way of telling how altitude will affect your body. Altitude does not discriminate, and can challenge even the most athletic, whilst not affecting older or less fit individuals. If you have experienced acute altitude sickness before, then you are more likely to get it again, but it is still quite a mystery and therefore difficult to predict who will be in trouble. The only way to reduce risk is by controlling the speed of your ascent.

So be careful before you go from 3000m to 6000m in one jump. Phase it in, and see how you do at each 1000 mark. If you’re getting dizzy at 4500m, then stop and enjoy the view, don’t risk damaging yourself for a few extra metres. When it comes to exercising at altitudes, take it easy.

Author: Frederick Clayton

 

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