Sports scientists help graduate acclimatise for Everest trek

Research graduate Steve Gowling

Published on 23 November 2017

Research graduate Steve Gowling has completed a gruelling trek to the Himalayas and believes acclimatisation training at Sunderland helped support him on the expedition.

Steve, who completed his Undergraduate and Postgraduate degrees in physiology in 2013, returned to campus to access support with acclimatisation and nutrition strategies before the high altitude trek over 17 days to Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal. Using the physiological labs in the Sport and Exercise Science department, Steve trained under hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions that he would expect to encounter once his adventure began.

The trek was also an opportunity for Steve to collect his own data in the high altitude environment, extending the research he completed during his Masters degree, which looked at the relationship between changes in heart-rate variability and the development of high-altitude sickness during an ascent of Mont Blanc.

High-altitude sickness

Steve’s research attempted to identify measures that could spot early warning signs of those at risk of high-altitude sickness and reduce its debilitating impact for those who work at altitude, as well as those who take part in recreational pursuits in harsh weather conditions notorious to high altitude regions.

A part-time academic tutor at the University, Steve, from Seaham, who also used the expedition to mark his own milestone 50th birthday, commented: “To have these accessible lab facilities on your doorstep was of huge benefit to me. It offered the opportunity for hypoxic preconditioning.

 “When you trek to Base Camp the oxygen availability is lower than at sea-level, so over five days staff in the department were able to simulate similar hypoxic conditions in the lab to stimulate some physiological responses that you would experience during ascent in the mountains.”

He added: “Those who take their sport very seriously need to take advantage of the expertise and facilities in this area of acclimatisation. I’ve been a hill walker all my life, but trekking to Everest Base Camp has to be one of the greatest challenges I’ve faced. It was also a great way to celebrate turning 50.”

 

Senior Lecturer in Exercise Physiology Dr Lisa Board who supported Steve with his earlier research and pre-acclimation training, said: “Steve’s research was very much about preparing for high altitude and he has used the equipment before. If you’re trekking that far, you want to get your body in the best shape possible. Many people get sick when they first get there. If you can prepare yourself in a small way in advance hopefully you can boost the acute physiological acclimatisation processes when you arrive, and give yourself a more enjoyable trekking experience, or a better chance of summit success for those attempting high peaks.

'Stress the body'

“Current research evidence suggests a minimum of seven days pre-acclimation training prior to the trek, ideally longer. Steve came in the lab for two hours a day and spent one and a half hours seated at rest followed by half an hour of moderate intensity exercise – sufficient to stress the body by lowering the oxygen availability. At altitude the lower oxygen availability stimulates a hypoxic ventilatory response to make breathing more efficient, and the kidneys release the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), which in turn stimulates the production of more red blood cells. Both responses increase the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood, which should make the ascent physiologically easier for you.”

Dr Board added: “The importance of the work undertaken in our labs with Steve cannot be underestimated. Symptoms of hypoxia, which may include dizziness, headaches, nausea, poor appetite and disturbed sleep, are very much individual, and may quickly become debilitating at very high altitude. Many people each year sign up for Charity Treks to Everest Base Camp or Kilimanjaro, both arduous treks to elevations above 5000m, and pre-acclimation offers a valuable addition to their training. The training we offer is gradual and safe with regular physiological monitoring to assess those all important individual responses.”