The physiological effects of high altitude -- including headache, shortness of breath and fatigue -- can be intimidating for even the most experienced athletes. Here's what's going on underneath those symptoms: As elevation increases, red blood cells in the body decrease. And what do red blood cells carry? Oxygen -- something your muscles are requiring a lot of right now.
The consequential decrease in available oxygen, teamed with a reduction in VO2 max and an increase in glucose dependency, presents some hefty challenges. Luckily, there are some tried-and-true nutrition strategies you can use to prevent these potential race-day deal breakers.
Amp up your carb intake --This applies to the few days preceding the race and to race day. You should be taking in more (quality) carbs than usual. Why? Your body burns through glucose stores more quickly at elevation. Make sure to top off glycogen stores pre-race and throughout race day.
Glucose consumes less oxygen per unit of energy produced than either protein or fat, so it is the most efficient fuel. Replacing lost glucose with carbs will also help to stabilize blood sugars. Gels, chews, sports drinks, powders and bars are good high-carb sources during your event.
Hydrate, hydrate, HYDRATE -- High altitude can lead to dehydration as a result of increased ventilation. Your body will not maintain satisfactory fluid status unless you restore what has been lost. The effects of dehydration are serious and even life threatening at times. Begin the race sufficiently hydrated and consume fluids (water and sports drinks) throughout.
Replace electrolytes -- When your body loses water, important electrolytes (sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium and more) are lost as well. Electrolytes are essential in regulating many of the body's processes and should be replaced immediately during endurance exercise, particularly in high elevation and/or heat. Salt tablets are effective for electrolyte replacement.
Eating a nutrient-rich, well-balanced diet throughout training and competition promotes improved performance and more efficient recovery.