Every few years, Seth and I visit his family in beautiful Boulder, Colorado. Boulder has a well-designed system of cycling lanes and trails, including the fantastic Boulder Creek Path, a scenic pedestrian/cycle path that connects riders and strollers to different parts of the city with minimal contact with motorized traffic. Since Boulder receives sun much of the year, a sizable outdoors-loving population (including students at a big Colorado University campus) keeps the city cycle-friendly. The roads leading from town to the mountains also make for enjoyable recreational rides.
Much as all of these inviting features cause these cycle commuters to get excited about our periodic visits to the Rockies, one factor always gives us pause: the altitude. It’s a challenge, to say the least, to make the transition from our coastal home, rich in sea-level (and sea-smelling) oxygen, to the rarefied heights of the mountain West. Should you be considering a similar adventure, I would like to share my alpine riding wisdom with you. Please note, however, that the following suggestions are general in nature and are not medical advice. For recommendations suited to your individual health history, please speak with your health care provider.
Soon after you hop off the train, plane, or bus and start breathing that bracing mountain air, you’ll notice how thin it is. Adjust your plans accordingly, giving yourself time to acclimatize. On your first day at a higher elevation, go at a leisurely pace and set the distance bar low. You’ll notice that hills that seem mere hiccups of the landscape at home become epic Everest-like ascents, so instead of chastising yourself for being out of shape or anxiously checking for flat tires, be aware of this physiological response and treat yourself kindly. This is all the more important if you have a load to carry, when you’re going to be working harder anyway.
Your body compensates for the decreased oxygen by cranking up red blood cell production in the bone marrow and releasing more of these oxygen-carrying cells into the bloodstream to deliver their load to hard-working muscles and other tissues. Remember to drink lots of water (don’t wait until you’re thirsty—you’re already starting to get dehydrated then), as you need to increase your fluid volume to transport all these new blood cells around. An electrolyte replacement beverage can be handy in these often hot, arid places. Hematopoiesis (the process of making red blood cells) also demands protein, so carry along some nuts, seeds, salmon jerky, or other favorite protein-rich foods.
Acute mountain sickness is a common response to altitude changes. The symptoms, which tend to occur within ten hours of getting high…up, include headaches, nausea, lightheadedness or dizziness, thirst, and sore muscles. If you can, sleep at a lower altitude than you ascend to during the day. All of these signs indicate that your body is adjusting to the new environment, and they should resolve within a day or two. Rarer but more serious altitude-related illnesses include high-altitude pulmonary edema (AMS symptoms plus shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, and muscle pain and weakness) and high-altitude cerebral edema (AMS symptoms plus a more severe headache, loss of coordination, and changes in consciousness—either loss of consciousness or delirium). These two illnesses are life-threatening and require immediate medical treatment.
Now that you’re well hydrated, tossing back those almonds, and not scolding yourself for a pokey pace, you’re ready to enjoy your ride into the sky. Just be careful: singing lyrics from “The Sound of Music” as you ride may be illegal in some areas.