How to Adjust to Living at High Altitude

How to adjust to living at high altitude

I moved from the sea level, sub-tropical climate of south-ish Texas to the high desert of northern Nevada about 5 years ago. While all the tips for traveling to a high altitude still apply when you move there, I discovered differences, too; for one thing, travelers rarely visit long enough to fully adjust to the altitude. (Unless you have the luxury of month-long vacations!) So while a visitor’s goal is to mitigate the effects of altitude, a transplant’s goal is to get the body fully acclimated and functioning optimally in their new home. In my experience, the strategy for long-term adjustment varies a bit from the recommended strategy for visitors. So if you’re considering a move to the mountains (highly recommended!), here are a few things that worked for me.

Explore, but start slow.

As a visitor, you’d probably take only a day or two to acclimate before tackling the most strenuous activities on your must-do list. While you can certainly do the same right after your move, I prefer saving the steep hikes to high(er) altitude until at least a couple weeks later. For one thing, there’s no rush: you’re planning to stay long-term. You’ll have time to summit every mountain in sight, if you want. And for another thing: moving. There’s really no way to make it not suck, and it’s exhausting. Personally, when I’m living out of boxes and have yet to learn where the grocery store is, I prefer a stroll in the local park to a strenuous hike.

Exercise by effort.

Good advice always, but harder to remember when your easy-effort runs suddenly slow by a minute or more per mile. Honestly, I had yet to grasp the concept of an easy run at the time I moved, so for a few weeks I was gasping for air and taking walk breaks within the first mile of my runs. Learn from my mistake – run (and hike, and bike, and whatever else) by effort instead of pace for the first month or so. If you really need to know how fast you “should” be able to go at high altitude, try the calculations at the end of this article.

Water. Also, electrolytes.

My lungs were happy with the high altitude by summertime, but the rest of my body was not quite prepared for the hot and dry air. During one softball practice I started getting dizzy and had to sit down to avoid passing out – it turns out that the consequences of dehydration show up rapidly in the desert. I started sipping water during any run longer than 30 minutes to avoid the light-headed shaky feeling I got from dehydration. I also started getting salt cravings after longer runs, and demolished a few bags of salt & vinegar potato chips before I discovered that a post-run electrolyte drink took care of the cravings. Now, I sweat quite a bit, so if your sweat level is more ladylike you may be less affected. But if you moved from a humid climate, you will lose water and electrolytes faster than you’re used to – rehydrate before you feel the effects!

Expect new challenges with new seasons.

I moved at the beginning of autumn. In other words, I didn’t experience any of the lovely effects of high altitude described in the preceding paragraph until more than 6 months later. And if you move during spring or summer, you won’t feel the cold, dry air morphing your skin into lizard scales until a few months later. Tip: any lotion that lists water as the first ingredient is useless against winter mountain air. Invest in some good body butter, or grab some coconut oil/shea butter/cocoa butter/any combination thereof and make your own.

If you’re a fellow mountain transplant, how did you make the transition? Any tips to add?


2 Comment

  1. My boyfriend is stressing out about how his body is going to handle visiting Cusco, Peru in a few weeks lol! This is perfect, I’ll have to share this with him!!

    1. Hannah says: Reply

      Hope it helps! Going up as high as Cusco, I would recommend taking it extra easy the first couple days.

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