Back in August, I ran the TransRockies Run, which covers about 60 miles in the Colorado Rockies over three days. (There’s also a 6-day, 120-mile race, but I figured 60 was enough for my first attempt.) Day 2 had one of the biggest climbs — a little more than two miles up Hope Pass, going from just under 10,000 feet to 12,536 feet in elevation. The top of the pass was the highest point of the entire race — and while there were some elite ultrarunners there, most of the people participating in the race were from sea level.
As we were huffing and puffing our way up, I talked to people from Texas, Florida and California about how they trained for the race. The guy from Texas heard that the exertion of training in heat would help (he wasn’t convinced once he started the climb). A woman from Los Angeles went to the Sierra and to Mammoth Mountain to train but never got above 7,000 feet. “That was nothing compared to this,” she said. A man from Florida told me there was nothing he could do since he didn’t have access to any mountains or hills, so he just tried to get the distance training in.
So what can you do to train for a race at altitude if you live at sea level?
1. ADJUST YOUR PACE
Most experts agree the Texan was onto something — it’s about your body’s perceived exertion — but you also have to adjust your pace. If you do heart-rate training, it’s about keeping your HR in the optimal range, but you can also figure it out based on your breathing. Just like any other race, if you go out too fast, you’ll burn out too quickly.
2. FOCUS ON LEG STRENGTHENING
If you know there are difficult climbs in your race — which if you’re running in the mountains at elevation, it’s highly likely — include some leg-strengthening exercises in your workout regimen. If it’s easier on your legs to climb the hill, that makes it easier on your whole system.
3. TRAIN PROPERLY
Obviously, spending any amount of time at elevation or in the mountains is helpful. If you just don’t have access to any elevation at all (like my friend from Florida), climb stairs or run up the stadium bleachers at your local high school. Get the climbing in however you can.
4. ARRIVE A FEW DAYS EARLY
Studies show that when a person spends time at an altitude above sea level, there is an increase in your red blood cell count in response to less oxygen in your blood and your VO2 max increases. It can take a few days for your body to acclimate to this, though, so the earlier you can go before your event, the better. Help your body acclimate by staying hydrated and getting plenty of sleep.
5. PREPARE FOR ALTITUDE SICKNESS
Many people who go to altitude from sea level experience symptoms like headache or upset stomach — and the worst is when it happens during your race. Getting there early and staying hydrated can make a huge difference, but once the symptoms hit, try ibuprofen, diarrhea medication or even a gingko biloba supplement. If you have stomach issues, remember to drink more water so you don’t become dehydrated.
READ MORE > HOW HIGH ALTITUDE AFFECTS YOUR PERFORMANCE
6. PREPARE YOURSELF MENTALLY
Regardless of how your training goes, studying the course map, topography and elevation helps prepare you for what you’re about to tackle. A huge part of running is the mental battle, so staying positive and knowing what’s coming up makes a huge difference, even when your lungs and legs are burning.
If you can’t train at altitude — and sometimes even if you can — the race is going to be a challenge. But if you do your best to prepare with the tips above, you’ll have a better chance at doing well.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN