What exactly is that?


So. You're probably wondering what on earth that means, right? How on earth is that gonna help you excel in mountaineering and how will you even benefit from that in the first place? Don't worry. I'll sum how it works, why to train it and how to train it in correlation to mountaineering along with some important vocab like aerbobic and anaerobic. If you want to skip ahead with the background info, click here!

Aerobic capacity refers to your lungs and heart and how well they can process oxygen intake at certain levels/altitudes to give it to your muscles for energy (having big lungs is a huge plus, but this'll come later). But how exactly does oxygen even provide you with energy in the first place?  All the information on cellular respiration I am about to share with you is from the educational science and history channel on YouTube called CrashCrouse on March 22, 2012 and it's titled: “ATP & Respiration: Crash Course Biology #7”. The speaker in the video is Hank Green (one of the co-founders of the channel) who has a Bachelor’s of science degree in biochemistry. The channel is very popular and reputable, having over 10 million subscribers. I have compiled and written information (in my own words) from the video on the basics behind the biology of respiration and how our body actually uses oxygen as a fuel source, to break down sugars into stored energy for our bodies. Please consider checking out his channel and feel free to watch the video instead if my written work is too long ; ) 


Creator of Video: Hank Green

YouTube Channel: CrashCourse

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In its simplest form, oxygen provides energy to the body through a process dubbed cellular respiration or respiration (breathing); if the body cannot respirate (breath) we would die or suffocate. In addition to this, the body also needs to store food which will turn into energy (no food - the body deteriorates and dies). Throughout our day, energy is needed for simple daily tasks such as movement or keeping ourselves warm. Cellular respiration is the process of taking the food that we eat, and breaking down our food in the presence of oxygen to produce energy which is ATP. Atoms are small particles that make up the basic building blocks of what our world is made out of. A molecule is then a group of atoms. Cellular respiration (simply: breathing) is how we take the energy from the food that we eat to power our bodies for daily tasks (what we eat, ends up as glucose which is a simple sugar: C6H12O6). In order for our body to convert this sugar (glucose) into energy to fuel our body we have to inhale oxygen (breath). When breathing, a chemical reaction occurs:


Time Code: 1:12

After breathing in and then out, the reaction above occurs. When oxygen reacts with glucose, CO2 (carbon dioxide), H2O (water) and ATP (energy which will help you give the energy to do the workout) is produced. In other words, the breakdown of glucose (made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen) releases energy. This energy is then stored as a molecule (group of atoms) that carries the energy called adenosine triphosphate or ATP: “a complex organic chemical that provides energy to drive many processes in living cells, e.g. muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, and chemical synthesis.”. To make it simple, it is best to think of  ATP as an intermolecular currency for energy transfer. ATP is a molecule that provides certain cells with a small amount of energy, in order for that cell to carry out a certain task for you body (grow, move, create electrical impulses, etc). Lastly, it is very important that you provide the body with enough water, in place for the water that is lost during respiration. Because so much water is being released during exercise (respirating), we have to make sure to drink water so our body can re-hydrate, since water provides cell function, body temperature regulation and other bodily functions.

Aerobic Respiration: meaning with oxygen, aerobic exercises test the lungs and train the heart as well as blood vessels.

Anaerobic Respiration: describes the process of respiration, but without oxygen. When doing an HIIT (high interval intense workout) or an anaerobic exercise like sprinting (short bursts of maximal energy), oxygen is not always available at a ready supply your cells need it under most circumstances, therefore, when you are sprinting for example, you may be taking deeper breaths, but there is still not going to be enough oxygen as you necessarily need. In the absence of oxygen, glucose will be broken down into lactic acid and a much smaller amount of energy (ATP). There is only a small amount of energy released, since there is no oxygen available to break down the glucose in the body. Your body will have to rely on other fuel sources, like carbohydrates (sugar, energy gel, coffee, pre-workout supplements that provide protein/amino acids or  even lactate). If you feel you understand respiration now, check out my nutrition page!

Lactic acid is actually a poisonous chemical for the body and when produced could cause muscle cramps if it builds up in a muscle to much, to make the muscle stop working (thus causing a cramp). To prevent this, it is important to recover right after a high intensity workout (sprinting or weight-lifting) by taking in deep breaths of oxygen. Oxygen can then help the body break down lactic acid. The payoff is that anaerobic respiration can take place without oxygen, but only releases small amounts of energy and oxygen debt is needed to break down lactic acid. When oxygen reacts with lactic acid, the waste products water and carbon dioxide are produced and the lactic acid is broken down. Be sure to check out my agility and flexibility page to find out stretching exercises for workout recovery.  


Respiration in Mountaineering

"Live high, train low" 

*All information stated is from the video on the right

When training at higher altitudes (2,400 metres above sea level), the availability of oxygen is not at present as on ground level (like in the city). This makes sleeping, breathing or exercise at higher altitudes feel more strenuous and exhausting as your oxygen levels are lower, which means there is not as much O2 present to fuel your body.

Wait! What? Why would I wanna train or go mountaineering at such high levels, that's just torture! Well, after training or living at higher altidues, your body will actually begin to produce more red blood cells (RBC) which carrys O2 to your body. The higher number of RBC's will mean that there will be more oxygen carryed by each RBC through the bloodstream into your muscles and organs, which will fuel your workout.


After you've trained consistently or lived at high altitudes for an extended period of time and return back to sea level, your gonna react a lot differently to oxygen.


Since you have more RBC's, and even more oxygen around you than before (back at sea level), you're going to perform excellently at cardio and overall be a beast at fitness.

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Video By: Mitchell Moffit (July 5, 2012)

Above here, I've linked a cool and concise video by the YouTube channel AsapScience titled "The Olympic Altitude Advantage". It covers the high altitude training through the red blood cell effect and how olympians use it to their advantage.

The video was created by Mitchell Moffit who has a degree in Biological Science from The University of Guelph, Ontario and his channel is considered quite reputable, having over 8 million subscribers. Please consider checking out his fun and educational channel!

My Experiences

Benefits from high altitude mountaineering

When mountaineering, there's definately going to be a point where you'll begin to feel nouseaus or exhausted during about the half-way mark of the expedition (above 2,400 metres). 


That is why it is important to utilize the oxygen in the air as efficiently as possible, as you will need energy to carry heavy loads and use balance from your body to provide stamina when traversing across various terrain.


What I can't stress enough is breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth consistently. By respirating properly, you will not only stop lactitc acid from building up in your body (muscle cramps), but you will also allow air to circulate efficiently through your body instead of randomly panting (more O2 intake = more energy provided from the bloodstream into your muscles and organs to perform well whilst climbing). 

Regularly doing 20 minutes of cardio a day like swimming or running (before weight training too as a warm up) is highly beneficial and will prepare you to get your lungs in shape. I would even recommend hiking at high altitudes as practice if this is available to you. Obvisously we can't practice high altitude training to train our VO2 max from sea level, but doing cardio sustained and regularly, along with high intensity interval training (running at faster intervals on a treadmill for examples) is excellent preperation for your climb as you will be testing/training your endurance and maximum strength of you lungs.

A paper written by people from the University of Stirling published a study on the British Mountaineering Council website in June of 2010 on the Ecnomic, Social, Psychological and Physical impact mountaineering has had on humans over the past century. 

The study concluded that through mountaineering and other mountain related activites such as alpine hiking, rock climbing and hill-walking, that mountaineering has a number of physiological benefits, such as:

  1. Reduced risk factors for cardiovascular disease

  2. Increase in VO2 Max

  3. Decrease in body weight

  4. Reduced BMI and calculated bodyfat pecentage

  5. Lower resting blood pressure



VO2 Max - Other's experiences


Note: VO2 max facts and information mentioned are from the article linked below

In cardiovascular fitness you're definately come across the term VO2 max, especially when referring to high altitude training.


It's simply just a measure of the how much oxygen the heart and lungs can transfer through the bloodstream in order for the body's tissues to utilize the O2 for energy. VO2 max tests the maximum volume of oxygen you're consuming at the maximum intensity of your workout (the more oxygen you consume = the greater intensity you can exert on your workout).

Those who tend to have a higher VO2 max (like olympic marathon runners) are able to endure long lasting events (greater aerobic engine; big lungs). 

The article linked below (written by British mountain biker and coach Chris Baddick on Training Peaks) concisely summarizes everything you should know about VO2 max in terms of measuring and specific training. 


Baddick, Chris. “Finding Your Maximum: Using VO2 Max in Training.” TrainingPeaks, TrainingPeaks, 14 Mar. 2015, 

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Creator of Video: Billy Khach (November 22, 2018)

The video hovering over you is on YouTube by mountaineer and fitness enthusiast Billy Khach, who talks about his preparation  for his climb on Chimbarazo in Ecuador (6,226 m) in correlation with VO2 max training.


The video is insightful and shares examples of where people begin to struggle during the ascent, along with other interesting information on aerobic capacity and its benefits. Check out his YouTube channel and Instagram if you want to know more about his advice and experiences with other sports.

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