I live in Colorado, so elevation is a part of everyday life. But elsewhere, it’s rare that people other than elite athletes and Olympians get the opportunity for altitude training. While opportunities for training are scarce, most runners need to perform at higher altitudes at some point, whether it’s a race starting high above sea level or a scenic run on a mountain vacation.
Here are a few steps you can take to make the most of your brief altitude stint.
The Benefits of Thin Air
Say you’re on a work trip somewhere 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level or higher. You probably can’t treat your stay like a full-blown altitude training camp. But, if possible, consider adjusting your travel plans to take advantage of the physiological adaptations of those places.
The lower air pressure at high altitudes makes your body takes in less oxygen per breath than it does in lower altitudes. After your body adjusts to performing with less oxygen, you experience a performance boost when you return to lower ground.
Racing at Altitude
If you’re not from a high altitude or have never trained in one, racing in the thin air can be tough. You’ll need to change your racing tactics and start a little slower than usual and use one of the following two approaches to acclimatize before racing: getting there very early or very late.
Ideally, you want to get to a race as early as possible. You need at least ten days to adapt to the demands of altitude and begin to recover from the increased stress and get a good feel for the effort levels required for specific paces.
Understandably, a 10-day pre-race adjustment period isn’t possible for everyday athletes. The next best approach is to arrive as close to race start time as possible, preferably within 18-47 hours. Arriving close to race day allows you to avoid the most detrimental performance inhibitors of altitude, which are typically experienced between day two and seven at altitude.
Don’t be Afraid to Slow Down
Everybody slows down when they go from sea level to far above it. Relaxing is essential. Make sure you don’t push your average running pace. You may not feel the difference when the run starts or when you’re cruising on a flat road, but the lack of O2 will catch up with you and make for an unpleasant second half.
You’ll often find that even the smallest hill will send you gasping for breath. It’s frustrating when your normally powerful legs and lungs can’t propel you up a small hill, but it’s normal. Take hills slow and don’t be afraid to walk to catch your breath at the top to bring your breathing and heart rate back to normal.
Take Care of Yourself
Staying hydrated is vital when training at altitude. The thin air means your breathing is more shallow and frequent, which creates more significant fluid loss through the respiratory system. Moreover, altitude locations are very dry. Not only does the low humidity prevent absorption of fluid through breathing, but it also makes you feel like you’re not sweating heavily because sweat evaporates so quickly. Carry water with you at all times and aim to drink about twice as much as you usually do at sea level.
Sleep studies have found athletes who train at altitude wake almost five times as often as they do at sea level in the first three weeks. This prevents the body from getting into deep sleep, which hampers recovery—and recovery is already compromised by the high altitude. So give yourself some extra shut-eye so you can make the most out of your altitude stint.