Mountain sport: what are the benefits for mind and body?

Mountain sport: what are the benefits for mind and body?

Is exercising in the mountains always a good idea? How can we fully reap the benefits? Find the answer in this article!

When doing sport, the mountains often attract and terrify us in equal measure. In any event, that's my experience. And, of course, you have the altitude and slopes... Does this really make exercise more difficult? And do you improve significantly by training in the mountains? And what does our body think?

The best way of understanding is to put these questions to a mountain professional.

"Mountains are addictive!" I imagine you've heard this before. Personally, I'm a believer, and I'm not just saying that because I was lucky enough to take part in the incredible Tour du Mont Blanc trek this summer (yes, I had to tell you.) In addition to enjoying an extraordinary human adventure, I really felt that my mind and body benefited from the experience: bye bye anxiety, tummy aches and excessive rumination.
OK, I know full well that my experience alone won't be enough to convince you. So to help you understand and learn more about this subject, I approached Grégoire Millet.Grégoire, who is a professor in environmental psychology and exercise physiology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, was also a professional triathlete (former French champion). This mountain and sporting expert grew up in France's Haut Jura mid-mountain range and has always exercised at altitude.

Why exercise in the mountains?

Mountains are good for our health on many levels but before Grégoire Millet explains how mountains can help improve your sporting performance, I'd like to list other benefits of exercising at high altitude.

↪️  Reduced risk of certain illnesses

Today, it's been repeatedly proved that “the higher the altitude at which you live - namely between 300 and 1,500 metres above sea level - the lower the risk of risk dying from cardiovascular disease, breast cancer for women and colorectal cancers for men," explains the specialist.

And it's the same when it comes to neurodegenerative illnesses: "It's been shown that people who live in the mountains or visit regularly and enjoy regular or occasional exposure to high altitudes are less likely to develop certain illnesses such as Parkinson's," he adds.

👉 Our sporting and health advice

↪️ Fat loss

Today, there is evidence to confirm that altitude has an effect on our body composition, specifically our body fat and lean mass. Grégoire Millet explains that "when we're at high altitude we tend to have smaller appetites". It has been observed that high altitude affects our feelings of hunger and sense of fullness. This could result in us eating less when in the mountains particularly at very high altitudes.

He adds: "Conversely, our energy expenditure tends to increase in the mountain (through greater physical activity) which, therefore, increases our metabolism. And faster metabolism means more calories burned every day. And if, in addition, we eat less, the energy balance is reversed which may lead to weight loss.

👉 Our weight loss advice

↪️ Sleep

"If you take time to acclimatize, you ascend gradually and don't train too hard or too quickly in the mountains, you may be able to better regulate your sleep," explains Grégoire Millet.

Conversely, our specialist explains that "if you ascend too quickly, it can disrupt your sleep." Why? Simply because "our breathing rate increases at high altitude (Editor's note: I'll tell you a little bit more about this phenomenon later in the article) and so it's quite common to experience periodic breathing which will affect the quality of your sleep." .

👉Sleep: critical for physical activity

↪️Mental state

“A physical exercise performed in a forest or at high altitude will have a more significant effect on the mood and well-being," than the same exercise performed in town, for example, according to Grégoire Millet.

To achieve maximum benefit, you just need to visit occasionally, spending 3 to 4 days in the mountains several times a year.

In light of this, Grégoire Millet is convinced that "we should advise people over the age of 65 to regularly travel to high altitude destinations."It's good for their vascular and mental health."

Mountain sport: what are the benefits for mind and body?

In terms of sporting performance, what are the advantages of high altitude and mountain air?

First of all, I'm going to give you a brief summary about mountain air.

Contrary to what we sometimes read or hear, air at high altitudes doesn't have a lower oxygen content."In the mountains, air always contains 20.93% of oxygen, irrespective of altitude,"" Grégoire Millet reminds us.

However, "barometric pressure decreases" with increasing altitude. This refers to "the weight of the air above our heads." So it's"the pressure of oxygen that decreases," at altitude rather than the amount of oxygen.

To give you an idea, the barometric pressure in the mountains is only about one third of the pressure that we experience at sea level.

The result ? "It's more difficult for our bodies to transport the same amount of oxygen to our muscles when exercising," explains Grégoire Millet. So to adapt to this phenomenon that we also call hypoxia (low availability of oxygen), our body produces more red blood cells, increasing the concentration of haemoglobin in our blood.

Mountain sport: what are the benefits for mind and body?

But what are the benefits? And how does it work?

Training in the mountains "helps improve our endurance by improving our blood's oxygen carrying capacity," "explains Grégoire Millet. OK, but why? It's what I've just been saying: our level of haemoglobin, which helps transport oxygen in our blood, adapts and increases when we undertake physical activity in the mountains.

Why is this useful to us? Well, the more haemoglobin you have in the blood, the greater your oxygen-carrying capacity. And, "when you do endurance exercises, the main limiting factor is our oxygen consumption during exercise, which we also call V02 Max,” explains Grégoire Millet.

Training in such conditions will help improve this famous V02 Max , but to achieve this, you will need to train for a minimum of 3 to 4 weeks at an altitude of roughly 1,200 metres. 

Today, altitude training is used for all sports, not just endurance sports, as it also benefits muscles. For example, performing 15 to 20 second sprints at altitude improves muscle fatigue resistance which can be useful in sports such as rugby, football or even racket sports," explains Grégoire Millet. Of course, this shouldn't be done before the 7 to 10 day altitude acclimatization phase (which I'll talk about next).

Acclimatization, preparing for altitude

Hydration is key when it comes to proper preparation for high altitude. Our sports and mountain specialist explains that "when you're at high altitude, you hyperventilate which means your breathing rate increases." The result? It's quite simple: the more I breathe, the more water I excrete through my respiratory tracts.

Since we're talking about hyperventilation, it's worth knowing that this also increases the amount of C02 (carbonic gas) we emit, which alters our acid-base balance. I know, it's all a bit technical. But just remember the implications: "Our blood becomes less acidic so we have less need for buffer substances, called bicarbonates, which help balance this acidity.So we excrete more of these bicarbonates." How? Through our urinary tracts, or by peeing. Which means that, yes, generally you need to go to the toilet more when you're in the mountains

So " during the first seven days in the mountains, during the acclimatization phase, we lose more fluid through our respiratory and urinary tracts. Hence the importance "of increased hydration, drinking a minimum of 4 litres of water a day." Avoiding dehydration will also help reduce the risk of getting altitude sickness which can manifest itself in the form of: headaches, stomach upsets, fatigue and slight unsteadiness. In this article, we will talk about how to avoid the effects of altitude.

The second thing you need to be careful about is training intensity: for example, "if you're used to running at 10 km/h, when you run at altitude, you'll have to reduce your running speed otherwise you'll be training too close to your V02 Max which may result in acidosis (an excessive production of acid in the blood) and intense fatigue.". So it's important to take things very slowly.

Mountain sport: what are the benefits for mind and body?

So is mountain training akin to doping?

To clarify further what I said above, the lower levels of oxygen in our body, linked to high altitude (we also talk about hypoxic conditions), requires increased availability of red blood cells. This is made possible thanks to the production of EPO - a hormone secreted by the kidneys - by our bodies. And the effects of EPO? "An increase in the number of young red blood cells called erythrocytes which, as they mature and age, are able to transport oxygen," explains our expert.

So it's this production of EPO that helps sports men and women, training at high altitude, improve their V02 Max and their endurance capacity.

However, Grégoire Millet reminds us that "altitude training should certainly not be considered a form of doping." This issue has been resolved by the International Olympic Committee. And rightly so since the production of EPO results from a natural phenomenon rather than by adding an artificially created substance to the blood.

When can you start to observe the effects of staying at high altitude on the human body?

"After a trip to the mountains, you might go through an initial phase where you notice improved performance compared to your pre-mountain levels," explains the sportsman, but this is often followed by a less favourable phase when "fatigue sets in." Which is why you need to wait for roughly 2 to 3 weeks before reaping the full benefits of your high-altitude sports trip.

It's also worth knowing that "your sporting performance can improve by 3 to 4% after a 3 to 4 week stay in the mountains."

Are there any contra-indications?

There are no known contra-indications at between 1,500 and 1,800 metres, which is considered to be moderate altitude. That said, of course, it's always better to seek your doctor's advice before embarking upon a high-altitude sporting adventure.

But today, according to Grégoire Millet, "it's important to demystify altitude."He points out that, mistakenly, "we always think about accidents that occur during extreme climbs, at altitudes of 1,800 metres, while, in reality, the benefits of mountain sports greatly outnumber the risks."

OK, so now I think it's your turn to tell me if the mountains have worked their magic on you? One thing is certain: whether you're looking to improve your performance or simply enjoy some fresh air and an enhanced sense of well-being, the mountain and its sporting activities will always have something to offer. Make the most of it!

Mountain sport: what are the benefits for mind and body?


Journalist & sports writer

A runner at heart, I'm always up for trying out new sports with you !
My objective? To pass on my tips and my passion for sport through my content.

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