Running At High Altitude: What You Can Learn From Elite Runners

So, you’re thinking about running on vacation? If you’re headed to New York – Central Park and Prospect Park should be on your hit list. New York is an easy place to run no matter where you’re coming from – it’s at sea level. So, what if you’re traveling to a location that might require running at high altitude like Denver, Flagstaff, or the Grand Canyon?

Running at high altitude is a challenge compared to sea level.

And elite athletes intentionally train at higher altitudes to improve running performance.

But, it’s not for everyone. There’s lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes. This means there’s less oxygen available for your physical activity. If you’re planning on performing some sort of physical activity at high altitude – and you’ll need to do some planning to make sure it’s a good idea.

Ready to get started?

et’s take a look at exactly what running at high altitude is, how it impacts performance, and whether training at higher altitudes might be able to give you a boost on race day.

Running at high altitude two runners running on a trail mountain.

What is High Altitude Running?

High-altitude running refers to running or training at altitudes that are higher above sea level than what an individual is used to.

You may have hear the expression “thinner air.” At higher altitudes the amount of oxygen available to our bodies decreases. Less oxygen available in each breath, yields less oxygen available for muscles to use.

A 2020 study studied the effect that a lack of oxygen would have a major impact on an athlete’s training and performance.

Here’s what they found: at higher altitudes, the body’s ability to produce red blood cells is be reduced.

Red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen to the muscles and organs, so a reduction in these cells means that less oxygen is available to the body during exercise.

In addition, your heart rate may artificially increase at higher altitudes to compensate for lower oxygen availability. This may be why your heart rate is 5-10% higher even at rest in a higher altitude.

However, intentionally training at altitude can lead to major adaptations in the body that will improve athletic performance at sea level.

These adaptations include an increase in the production of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells, as well as an increase in the body’s production of enzymes that help to generate energy from carbohydrates and fats.

What Are Some Benefits of Running at High Altitude vs Lower Altitude?

So, why do some runner’s train at altitude?

Looking at the training schedules of just about all the elite runners out there will show you why altitude acclimation is so important.

Research shows that altitude training can lead to greater adaptations in the cardiovascular and respiratory systems due to the lower availability of oxygen in high-altitude regions.

This results in an increase in the production of red blood cells, which can then carry more oxygen to the working muscles – ultimately improving endurance and athletic performance.

In fact, studies have shown that training at high altitudes can lead to a measurable increase in VO2 max, which is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can take in and utilize during exercise. This is particularly beneficial for long-distance runners, who rely heavily on their aerobic capacity.

Some popular locations for high-altitude training include Flagstaff and Boulder in the US, Chamonix in France, and Iten in Kenya.

These areas are known for their high altitude and are often chosen by elite athletes as part of their training programs.

But you don’t have to travel to these cities or be training for the Olympic Games in order to train at altitude. Just travel to any location above lower elevations – typically, this is anywhere between 6,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level.

Woman running on trail at high altitude.

What are the Risks of Running at High Altitude?

One of the main risks associated with running at higher elevations is acute mountain sickness (AMS), which can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath.

AMS is caused by the lack of oxygen in the blood due to the lower air pressure at high altitudes.

Moreover, AMS can also evolve into more severe forms, such as high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), which can be life-threatening.

Athletes who experience symptoms of AMS should immediately stop their physical activity, rest, and seek medical attention if necessary.

Dehydration is also a risk factor at high altitudes, since the lower air pressure can increase evaporation rates and cause faster water loss from the body.

Of course, proper nutrition is also important in this process, since the body requires more carbohydrates and other nutrients to fuel the increased production of energy (due to the lower oxygen levels).

Can You Simulate Running at a High Elevation Even if You Live at Low Altitude?

There’s no true substitution for running at high elevation if you plan on staying at sea level – but there are some adaptations that can get you close.

Try Intervals, Hills, and Long Runs

To start, training with workouts that target aerobic capacity, such as intervals, hills, and long runs, can help prepare the body for running at higher elevations. These aren’t a true sub, but can help prepare your body for future elevation work.

Live High, Train Low vs Train Low, Live High

Another option is to use “live high, train low” or “train low, live high” techniques.

In the first method, athletes live at high elevations but do their training at lower elevations to optimize their workouts.

In the latter, athletes live at low elevations but sleep in a hypoxic (low oxygen) tent to simulate the conditions of high altitude.

Both techniques can improve the body’s oxygen-carrying capacity and help acclimate to higher elevations.

Try Breathing Exercises

One final (but highly effective tip) for mimicking high altitude training is to do breathing exercises.

Specifically, square breathing can help prepare athletes for the reduced oxygen levels they experience at higher altitudes, without actually needing to go to a higher elevation.

Square breathing involves inhaling for four seconds, holding the breath for four seconds, exhaling for four seconds, and holding for four seconds before repeating the cycle a few times.

This technique can help train the respiratory muscles to utilize oxygen more efficiently, allowing for improved endurance during runs and workouts.

Runners along the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc trail at high altitude.

Running Races at High Altitude

If you’re thinking about training at high altitude, one of the best motivators might be signing up for a high-altitude race.

Some of the most well-known high-altitude running races in the world include the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, the Leadville Trail 100, and the Jungfrau Marathon.

These races are known for their picturesque routes that offer stunning views but also require athletes to overcome the challenges of high altitude.

Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon is located in Colorado and is known for being one of America’s toughest mountain races. The course starts at an elevation of 6,300 feet and finishes at the summit, which is at an incredible 14,115 feet. This means athletes have to overcome a more than 7,815 feet of elevation gain over 26.21 miles.

Similarly, the Leadville Trail 100 is one of the toughest ultra-marathon races in the world, with challenging altitudes that range from 9,200 to 12,600 feet. The race is held in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and requires runners to complete a total distance of 100 miles.

Another famous high-altitude running race is the Jungfrau Marathon, located in Switzerland. This race is known for its beautiful scenery, picturesque mountains, and crystal-clear lakes. The race has an elevation of over 6,000 feet and covers a total distance of 26.2 miles.

Not ready for a high altitude race? Consider a high altitude running trip to prepare you for the terrain and elevation change.

Tips for Running at High Altitude vs Sea Level

If you really want to challenge yourself – and run your best times ever – training at altitude might just be the solution you’re looking for. However, you shouldn’t jump into it willy-nilly.

Here are some tips to help you get started.

Slow Down, First and Foremost

When you are training at high altitudes, your body will experience a decrease in oxygen levels, which can lead to shortness of breath, dizziness, and fatigue.

To combat these effects, slow down your pace and avoid pushing yourself too hard. Your body needs time to adjust to the lower oxygen levels and the change in air pressure.

So while you might feel discouraged looking at your watch and seeing a 10-minute-per-mile pace when you normally run 8 minutes per mile on your easy runs, try not to focus too much on the numbers.

Keep an eye on your heart rate and other metrics – your body’s working hard to adjust.

Gradually Increase Your Intensity, and Always Include a Warm-Up and Cool-Down

When you’re doing any work at high altitudes, be sure to gradually increase the intensity over a period of time – don’t push it.

The 10% rule for weekly mileage increase may not always be the best or most accurate “rule” to follow, but it’s better to err on the side of caution here.

And, just like with any other training, warming up and cooling down are crucial for altitude training.

Adequate warm-up and cool-down sessions are particularly important when training at high altitudes since they help prepare your body for the reduced oxygen levels and prevent potential injuries.

Stay Hydrated

When you are at high altitudes, your body loses more moisture, which can lead to dehydration and decrease your athletic performance. Make sure to drink plenty of water and carry a water bottle with you during your training runs.

Upgrade Your Nutrition

Eating a diet rich in carbohydrates can help you maintain your energy levels during long runs. Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for your muscles, and when you are running at high altitudes, your body will require more energy than usual.

Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins can also help support your overall health and fitness.

Try Trail Running

Trail running offers a unique challenge because it involves running on uneven terrain with elevation changes. This type of training can help improve balance and coordination, which are essential for running at higher altitudes. Before you do, consider investing into appropriate trail running gear.

Investigate trail running trips like Rogue Expeditions that offer the opportunity to practice your skills in scenic destination locations without the pressure of a race finish.

Related: Trail Running vs Road Running: Everything You Need to Know

Don’t Be Afraid of Cross-Training

We all know how important it is to shake up our exercise routines every now and then – and sprinkling in some cross-training can help you take advantage of high-altitude training without overdoing it on your running miles.

Add some cross-training like biking, swimming, and strength training. This will improve your endurance and muscular strength without putting even more stress on your body.

Follow a Training Plan

Before you do any running at high altitude, make sure you have a solid training plan in place. This should take into consideration your current fitness level, training history, and goals – and it should gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts over a period of weeks and/or months.

If you need a training app that’s responsive to your training efforts, consider Runna, our favorite training app at Half Marathon Guide.

Ask Your Coach for Advice

The best piece of advice for runners who are thinking about doing high-altitude running is to work with a running coach. They’ll be able to provide valuable guidance on how to structure your workouts, monitor your progress, and help you make adjustments as needed.

Final Thoughts

Overall, high-altitude training can be a valuable tool for athletes who are looking to improve their performance in any way – you don’t need to be a world-class marathoner to take advantage of this method.

Whether you’re a 2:40 half marathon runner, a 2:20 marathoner, or even a casual 10k jogger, altitude training can be helpful for anyone – but it must be approached with caution and respect for the potential risks and challenges involved.

With the right preparation, though, many athletes have found that the benefits of high-altitude training are well worth the effort. Give it a try today – take your efforts to the next (sky-high) level by running at high altitude.

FAQ

Why do athletes run at high altitudes?

When training or competing at higher altitudes, the body responds to the decrease in air pressure and lower oxygen levels by producing more red blood cells to increase the amount of oxygen carried through the bloodstream. This can improve the body’s running efficiency in using oxygen which can improve cardiovascular and aerobic capacity, as well as potentially improve athletic performance.

How do I adjust to running at high altitude?

Gradually acclimate to the increased altitude by spending time at intermediate altitudes before moving up to higher altitudes.

What are the symptoms of altitude sickness?

Symptoms of altitude sickness can include shortness of breath, headache, nausea, and fatigue.

What are the effects of high altitude on the human body?

In addition to improving red blood cell production, high-altitude training can have other benefits for athletes. It can improve cardiovascular function, increase aerobic capacity, and enhance overall athletic performance.

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