My recent post on altitude resulted in several questions. The common theme of many of these questions had to do with how to prepare for a race at high altitude when you live at a low altitude. There were two common misconceptions evident in these questions.
The first assumption many made was that one way to prepare for altitude is to get the body used to working with less oxygen. So several asked if using some sort of breathing device that limited air intake or even holding one’s breath while exercising would adequately accomplish this. The answer is “no.” Preparing for altitude is not like swinging a heavy bat before stepping to the plate so that the normally weighted bat feels lighter. The way to get your body ready for higher altitude is develop more red blood cells. They carry oxygen to the muscles. So if oxygen becomes less abundant the body compensates by figuring out a way to transport more of the inhaled oxygen to the muscles. To create more red blood cells one needs to be exposed to a high altitude for some 17 hours—or more—per day for a few weeks. Holding your breath for 17 hours a day is not likely to work.
The second misconception that was apparent in the questions was that the lungs must need a greater capacity to hold air in order to better cope with high altitude. This brought questions about doing things to expand one’s lungs like deep breathing exercises. The lungs are not a limiter for high altitude, assuming you have healthy lungs. Again, it’s red blood cells that to a great extent determine how well you perform at altitude.