Just as many birds migrate during the year, many professional runners — so fast they practically take flight themselves — also move around during their offseason. In their case, they head to higher altitudes to train for portions of the year. Now, what if we told you to consider doing the same on your next vacation?
The lack of oxygen at altitude actually carries some benefits for your body and therefore, your performance. “As altitude increases, the outside pressure decreases and so does the amount of oxygen per volume of air; as a result, every breath we take at altitude contains less oxygen,” explains Greg Reverdiau, founder of High-Altitude Training Institute. “One of the ways our body acclimates to the lack of oxygen is by generating additional red blood cells. Those are the cells responsible for carrying the oxygen throughout our body. When returning to lower altitude, the additional red blood cells help our body perform better since it carries more oxygen to your muscles.”
Reverdiau goes on to explain that it could be seen as more or less like doping, except it’s legal. Actually, some of the top running programs where elites train year-round are located at elevation, including the United States Olympic Training Center.
So why, if you’re not a pro or making a living from the sport, should you take time to travel for altitude training?
TRAINING AT HIGHER ELEVATIONS
When training at altitude, you will find yourself 5,000 feet above sea level (or higher). Even just by spending a few weeks at altitude, you will see some of the same results that the elites do, which is why so many training camps in higher altitudes are now offered to everyday runners interested in a performance boost.
“Your heart and lungs work harder to deliver the necessary oxygen to your muscles, and you’ll notice a higher heart and respiratory rate at altitude as well,” notes Angie Spencer, RN, a running coach and owner at Marathon Training Academy. “The theory is that priming your body by training at altitude will help prepare you to run faster at lower elevation or be ready for a high-elevation race.”
If you already live in a prime altitude-training city — such as Boulder, Colorado, Flagstaff, Arizona, or Mammoth Lakes, California — you can still take part in altitude training by the “Live High, Train Low” method, where you do your workouts at lower elevation and return to higher elevation for rest and recovery, yielding some of the same benefits. You can also “Live High, Train High,” but Reverdiau notes that for everyday runners, finding the right altitude can be difficult, and recovery can then take even more time.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Before you make a trip to run at altitude, it is important you go in with a training plan and goal in mind. Many everyday runners go in conjunction with a training camp to have the guidance of a coach and company of other runners.
Don’t arrive after an intense training block, where your body is spent and lacking energy. Instead, treat your time leading up to altitude training much like you would when preparing for a race.
“We recommend doing a mini-taper before you come to altitude so that when you arrive at altitude, you arrive rested, hydrated and fueled up; you have good glycogen stores,” shares Terry Chiplin, founder of Active at Altitude. “The key thing is in order for your body to get the best out of the adaptations, you really need to be rested.”
When you begin, you’ll want to set your expectations accordingly; the lack of oxygen will make running more difficult than you’re used to. In fact, Chiplin adds that the first week, your training volume should decrease by 10–20% as you acclimate.
Additionally, be prepared to eat nutrient-dense foods that will help your iron levels to make sure your cells are getting enough oxygen, and drink plenty of water during your training.
“Hydration is vital; the body needs more fluids as the blood plasma volume increases at altitude because the air is thinner and the environment is typically dry,” adds Spencer. “This causes shallow, more frequent breathing which leads to greater fluid loss through respiration.”
You may notice you are sweating less, however, this is normal according to Reverdiau. He explains that because the air is drier, your sweat evaporates more quickly. So, refueling based on sweat rate is not recommended during altitude training.
THE BENEFITS AREN’T ALL PHYSICAL
Though many coaches highlight the benefits your body receives when training at altitude, it turns out your mind may get a major boost, as well.
“We get a lot of runners who come from an urban/city environment and running at altitude in the mountains on trails with clean air and gorgeous terrain, really showed us a psychological aspect that doesn’t get covered very much, if at all,” stresses Chiplin. “People spending time at altitude have left reconnected with a joy of running and take that back with them. That just gets added into the mix of physical benefits and enables people to really tap into another kind of energy that helps improves their running.”
READ MORE > 7 BENEFITS TO GETTING OUT IN NATURE
As you connect with your mind, it is important to bring that awareness to the physical, however, when it comes to altitude sickness. Knowing the signs and symptoms can help you be prepared to move to a lower elevation should you need to.
“It includes difficulty sleeping, dizziness, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, rapid heart rate and shortness of breath with exertion,” advises Spencer. “Elevation sickness is more common in those going above 8,000 feet (2,400 meters), but it is important to recognize these symptoms early and get treatment which often includes getting to a lower altitude, supplemental oxygen, hydration and electrolytes, medication to treat symptoms and use of a hyperbaric chamber.”
This is another reason for runners new to training at higher altitudes to do so with a camp or coach: There is less chance of over-exerting yourself or pushing your body too hard as it adjusts to its new surroundings.
Don’t let this warning scare you, however, from booking your next runcation to Colorado Springs, or Santa Fe. “Everyday runners benefit from it the same way professional athletes do; the main difference is that pros have continuous access to high-altitude,” adds Reverdiau. “For the majority of us mortals, unless you are lucky to live at high altitude already, a timely visit at altitude for a week or two can yield great results on race day.”
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT RUN