The Beginner’s Guide to Running at High Altitude

The Beginner's Guide to Running at High Altitude
Photo: Twenty20

After recovering from a spontaneous lung collapse in 2005, I spent years rebuilding my cardiovascular endurance. I took great pride in running one, two, and eventually up to seven miles at a time. And I’ve kept up my running practice for more than a decade since. This consistency meant that while I lived and worked all over the east coast, I never struggled to eke out at least a 5K any time that I ran — regardless of my energy levels or the terrain.

So you can imagine my dismay when I moved to the Rocky Mountains earlier this year and discovered in my first week of living at high altitude that I was back to square one. The first time I went for a run, I had to walk at even the slightest of inclines. I made it through a painful (and painfully slow), walk-break-riddled 15 minutes before dropping onto the trail with my head between my knees, gasping for breath.

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Turns out, if you’re a runner who’s planning to race at, vacation at, or move to high altitude, preparation is key. Read on to learn how altitude affects the body, and how you can speed up the acclimatization process — safely. Whether your goal is a PR at a sky-high race (we hear Leadville, CO’s “Race Across the Sky” is not to be missed!) or acing an everyday run, our expert guide will get you from the bottom to the top. 

This Is Your Body on Altitude

“Every breath you take provides less of what your muscles need in order to keep working…”

In general, “high altitude” is considered to be approximately 5,000 feet or above (although the medical community tends to define the term as 8,000 feet or higher), says Bruce Kirk, Owner and Director of Snow Shadow Gymnastics High Altitude Cross-Training. (Kirk has trained women’s Olympic gymnastics competitors for over 38 years and has spent 22 years pioneering the field of high altitude cross-training.)

The main difference between running at high altitude versus running at sea level is that there’s less available oxygen in the air at high altitude, says Kirk. This means every breath you take provides less of what your muscles need in order to keep working, which requires that your body work harder to distribute oxygen throughout your tissues and process nutrient exchanges.

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Where It Hits You Hardest

The effects of this process vary by individual. Some people may experience little to no dramatic effects, while others may experience moderate or even severe responses to training at altitude. For those who aren’t already acclimatized, the effects of high-altitude running can include decreased time to exhaustion, decreased VO2 max (or the body’s ability to use oxygen for energy), increased heart rate and increased risk for dehydration resulting from stronger winds and lower humidity than are common in lower altitude environments.

Additionally, anyone training at high altitude may be at risk for High Altitude Sickness or Acute Mountain Sickness, the signs of which include headache, fatigue, shortness of breath and confusion, says Kirk. These symptoms are more likely to occur at 8,000 feet or above. “More severe altitude illness occurs [at] 10,000 feet and above,” says Kirk. “High Altitude Pulmonary Edema [and] High Altitude Cerebral Oedema are considered potentially fatal.”

Even athletes who have successfully trained or raced at high altitude in the past may discover they experience altitude sickness the next time they arrive at high altitude, says Kirk. For this reason, it’s important to be aware of the potential effects of running at altitude and to take care of your body accordingly. “Any sign of sickness or illness observed should always be treated as serious,” says Kirk.

The Upside to High-Altitude Training

“While you might feel superhuman when you first head to lower altitudes, these effects are, unfortunately, temporary.”

Still, anyone willing to brave the potential uncomfortable transition to high-altitude running will reap a variety of benefits. “[The] principal benefits of exercising and training at altitude are numerous,” says Kirk. Think: increased VO2 max, increased red blood cells (which enhances the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to its tissues), and increased athletic performance overall. Not to mention decreased body fat percentage, increased muscle and strength, and improved stamina upon returning to lower altitude, Kirk says.

Keep in mind though, while you might feel superhuman when you first head to lower altitudes, these effects are, unfortunately, temporary. Expect your high-altitude acclimatization to wear off within 10 to 20 days (or two to three months, depending on the source you consult) of arriving nearer to sea level. The more time you spend training at high altitude, though, the longer the benefits will last, says Kirk.

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How to Ease the Transition to High Altitude

The best strategy for transitioning to high-altitude running varies depending on several factors, says Kirk. These include the amount of time you have to adjust, your age and fitness level. Where you’ve been training prior to arriving at high altitude, weather conditions such as temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, the altitude at which you’re planning to train, and your goals (e.g. are you training for a race or for personal achievement?) all matter, too. But regardless of your personal situation, a few techniques can help you ease in.

1. Go long.

For starters, giving yourself a longer transition period will help ensure that you’re able to acclimate successfully. Though this may not always be feasible, Kirk recommends acclimatizing over the course of three weeks. This will allow your body to gradually adjust to high-altitude conditions at its own pace. Because the fact of the matter is there’s only so much you can do to speed up this process.

2. Eat (and drink) right.

One critical factor that may help facilitate the acclimatization process is nutrition, says Kirk. A basic high-altitude nutrition plan should place a strong emphasis on hydration. The dry air at high altitudes can quickly zap your body of moisture, and water is essential for enabling red blood cells to circulate oxygen in the lungs — a process that’s already hampered by being at high altitude. Because drinking plenty of water is paramount, high altitude runners should aim to approximately double their hydration intake. Kirk also recommends following a low-fat diet whenever you’re training at altitude, as there’s some evidence the body doesn’t digest fat as efficiently at higher elevations.

RELATED: A Runner’s Guide to Hydration (and How Not to Overdo It)

3. Take it slow.

When in doubt, transition to increasingly high altitudes incrementally, says Kirk. If you’re going to be racing at 10,000 feet but you’ve been training near sea level, don’t just fly to 10,000 feet a few days before a race and hope you’ll feel OK. You’ll have much better results if you start at a lower high-altitude elevation and then gradually transition upward via 1,000-foot increments. The rate at which you transition is dependent upon the amount of time you have available as well as the rate at which your own body acclimatizes. If you’re experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness, then don’t go any higher until your body acclimatizes. If you’re feeling good (and able to run satisfactorily), that’s a sign that you’re ready to transition upward.

4. Shirk substances.

Finally, it’s a good idea to avoid smoking tobacco or consuming alcohol. Both substances are linked to a worsening of strained breathing at high altitude. And because being at high altitude can induce physical and mental fatigue all on its own, there’s no sense in giving your body another reason to feel sluggish in the morning.

The first few times you run at high altitude may be dispiriting. But remember: High-altitude athletes aren’t born, they’re made. If you follow the strategies outlined above and allow your body to transition at its own pace, you’ll be a VO2-maxed, red-blood-cell-fueled super runner soon enough.

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