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June 20, 2014

Running High? Tips for Training at High Altitudes

Written by Dena Evans

IMG_1479Winter is not the only time your running may take you among the clouds.  Summer vacations or trips with family might bring you to the mountains.  When you need to run at high altitudes, keeping in mind a few simple things can make your experience much more enjoyable and productive.

 

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

At high altitudes, you may not feel sweaty, even after you run.  However, that does not mean that you don’t need to replenish your fluids even more so than at sea level.  At higher altitudes, there is less air pressure.  Evaporation happens more rapidly both off your skin as well as every time you exhale.  At an altitude similar to Denver, you perspire about twice as much as at sea level.  If you are not being very deliberate about water intake, your running will suffer, and general dehydration may make you feel ill (headaches, nausea, fatigue are common effects) regardless.  Carry a water bottle with you, drink throughout the day, and avoid caffeinated beverages.  If you are concerned about how much to drink, weigh yourself before and after a run at altitude to get a sense of how much water you have perspired during the session.

 

Expect to adjust your paces

Running at altitude requires your body to function when your lungs aren’t getting the same concentration of oxygen with each breath.   Your body has to fight harder to produce red blood cells and the whole operation makes things more difficult on your muscles to function in the manner to which you may be accustomed.  If you can run an eight minute mile at sea level, doing so at an altitude similar to Albuquerque or Reno might leave you the finishing the length of a football field behind your sea level self.  For instance, your Vo2 Max pace is adjusted about 3% per 1000 feet, and expect it to still feel pretty tough.  Keeping a good humor and realistic expectations is key to successfully managing your schedule when heading to the hills.

 

It will get better...but it will get a little worse first

There is a lot of discussion about the benefits of training at altitude, but a long weekend at a mountain cabin won’t quite get you there.  When you arrive, your body begins to fight the good fight to produce red blood cells, despite the paucity of oxygen.  Initially, it will lose this fight, and your red blood cell stores will dwindle a bit over the first few days making these days successively more difficult to a certain extent.  After your body figures out that it needs to work a ton harder, it will, and production will ramp up like a toy company at Christmas.  However, this takes a about 2-3 weeks before supply can catch demand.  Once you return to sea level, this high octane production will dissipate fairly soon as the air pressure yields more oxygen per breath.  So, if you are serious about wanting to train at altitude, plan a longer stay, and don’t expect a huge boost months after you return.

Protect your skin

Even a cloudy day in the mountains can result in a sunburn with UV rays over twice as strong at many common mountain heights.  Wear hats and sunscreen, reapplying frequently to stay ahead of sun damage.

 

Keep fueling

At high altitude, your body must work harder to keep up with all the demands listed above and more.  A moderate caloric increase is appropriate to keep up with your body’s needs.

 

While the benefits and challenges of running at altitude are still being researched, a beautiful trail run in the mountains can provide qualitative benefits that go beyond the resultant blood chemistry, and training hard and with friends can plant the psychological seeds for many a goal race campaign.  Plan well, take care of your body while in the hills, and enjoy many a mile in the thin air.