The first question most runners in Denver ask is “How are you adjusting to the altitude?” If they’re lucky my non-totally adjusted lungs leave me enough air to say…it’s hard.
Meanwhile my Florida friends start with “are you freezing?!” and my Mid-West friends “where are you running next?”
I love having lived in so many places across the US not just for the friends, but for all the ways it’s allowed me to experience different styles of training!
In Florida, I battled the humidity and regularly ran in hot weather, so was very interested to see what it would be like to truly live and train at altitude, rather than simply swinging through on a random weekend.My first experience running at altitude was during a trip to Snowbird, Utah which was rough, also followed by a rough run at 8,000 feet in Park City…but then I miraculously busted out a 20 mile run in Boulder one trip!
Ahh the key there is a good 2500 feet difference!
Things I learned once we officially moved to Denver! There is a difference between altitude and high altitude training.
How high above sea level is Denver? The average is around 5,200 feet, while of course sea level is considered 0 feet or in essence in land in line with or barely above the water.
Elite athletes are usually training over 8000 feet, like Mammoth where Deena Kastor trains.What’s interesting is the longer we have lived here, the more often we’ll find new trails within just 45 minutes of us that start at 7,000 feet and I can immediately tell a difference in my breathing.
In fact, during Colorado Ragnar I started at the highest point of the race, 10,000 feet, running downhill and still could tell that my breathing was different! If you’re ever wondering “how many feet above sea level am I?”, either get a super fancy GPS watch with an altimeter or pull out your phone which usually has a compass function and will also tell you elevation.
So let’s dive in to the why people train at elevation, what it’s like to race vs train at altitude and a few of the tips I’ve picked up on better training with elevation changes.
Side note: altitude vs elevation – while they are scientifically slightly different, both can be used to describe the distance of an object from the ground, which is why we tend to use them interchangeably.
Understanding Running at Altitude
Why is running at altitude so different?
Running at high altitudes decreases the amount of oxygen getting to the muscles and there’s an increased risk of dehydration.
“At 6000 feet above sea level, you exhale and perspire twice as much moisture as you do at sea level.” – From High Altitude Life.
In other words, oxygen levels at altitude decrease the farther you go up, making it harder to breathe.
Most of us think of altitude as specifically referring to hiking up a mountain, but altitude sickness symptoms can start as low as 6,000 feet (honestly most people trying to climb stairs in Denver really notice it!). For climbers, the main cause of sickness is going too high, too fast without acclimating to the low oxygen level.
Runners are usually not running so quickly up a mountain that this is the cause of any issues.
But many runners will notice a change in their running when reaching the “Mile High” city of Denver and a greater decrease in performance as they move farther in to the mountains or any location over 6,000 feet.
Here’s a handy chart to show why!
6,000 ft: 17% less oxygen than at sea level
8,000 ft: 25% less oxygen than at sea level
14,000 ft: about 40% less oxygen than at sea level
Photo from the new Mammoth Track, part of a project by Deena and Andrew Kastor. This is another place you’ll find many elites like Meb training!
Some claim that if you’re in better shape, you’ll adapt more quickly to altitude.
But science doesn’t support this idea, there just isn’t a good way to see who will be effected and who won’t.
For example, while I run 150 miles a month, David had been on a hiatus from training and yet I was the one who felt the impacts of altitude on every single run and especially when we went out for hikes with a gain of 1,700 feet or more.
What does less oxygen mean for training?
Luckily our bodies are miraculous machines, that begin adapting to our surroundings without us needing to think about it. So here’s what it’s doing to try and make up for the decreasing oxygen levels:
- You start to breath faster to initially increase your oxygen levels.
- You urinate more frequently as your kidneys try to keep the body balanced
- Your body increases red cells in your blood to better carry more oxygen
- Heart rate and blood pressure increase in an attempt to push more oxygen
- Blood thickens also making your heart work harder
As you continue to increase altitude, the body also begins to battle the decreased outside air pressure, which adds to the feeling that it’s hard to breathe and you feel more fatigued than normal on your run.
According to Greg McMillan, over 7,000 feet you can expect an easy run to be up to 30 seconds slower per mile to achieve the same easy level of effort.How running at altitude effects the body and your pace! #runchat Click To Tweet
How might you feel running at altitude?
Your body doing all of this work is part of what causes many people to feel less than fantastic when they first get to altitude…also known as altitude sickness, but for many it’s actually just dehydration!
- Harder to breathe (harder and harder the higher you go)
- Runs feel harder (because you can’t breathe)
- Possible sleep disruptions
- Often a major decrease in appetite, which you need to overcome to fuel your runs
Why elites train at altitude?
Before moving to Denver, I’d heard many times of the amazing runners like Kara Goucher who chose to live and train in nearby Boulder to achieve the benefits of altitude training.
As you might have guessed from the notes above training for a long period at altitude allows the body to produce more red blood cells and thus enhance oxygen capacity.Above, Desi on a training run at elevation.
It seems that the benefits can last for up to 2-3 months after living at altitude. In order to get both the oxygen benefits and work on speed, you’ll notice that many elites do periodized training from high to low altitude.
Or a newer strategy of “Live High, Train Low” where athletes sleep at high altitude, but come down lower daily for training sessions.
9 Tips for Running At Altitude
There is a lot of science you can read on this, but here are some plain English tips for the common runner who is simply ready to enjoy a run on vacation:
1. Drink large amounts of water!
A hilarious rhyme I heard “Before you hit the trail, best your urine be pale.”
In other words, you need to drink more water than you’re used to drinking. It’s very easy to become dehydrated because you are breathing out more so you lose water through respiration and the air is very dry so your sweat dries quickly potentially not triggering your normal urge to drink.
2. Go Quickly
Go as soon as you can upon arrival. Altitude sickness often sets in a day or two after arrival.
3. Avoid alcohol
The dehydration will slow your adjustment to altitude as the body again is expelling more water and further stressing the kidneys.
4. Slow down
This isn’t the time to force a speed work session, instead take advantage of the great views and enjoy a leisurely paced run because your heart rate will likely be higher as your body works harder to get oxygen.
5. Maintain iron levels
Your body needs more iron as it creates more red blood cells, so be sure to eat iron-rich foods, like red meat and greens, along with Vitamin C which helps with absorption.
6. Increase carbohydrate intake to 70% of total calories if you’re doing a longer training run. This is because carbohydrates require less oxygen for the body to process and when you first arrive at higher altitude your body will use more carbohydrates for fuel.
If you are planning a race at altitude, try visiting at least 2 or 3 times prior to the race for a weekend. It’s not the same as training there, but it can certainly help
8. Consider walk breaks: Even if they are not part of your normal routine, a few pauses throughout the run may allow you to
Rhodiola is widely distributed at high altitudes in mountainous regions over the world. It is commonly used in traditional medicine in Asia for stimulating the nervous system, enhancing work and exercise performance, eliminating fatigue and preventing mountain sickness.
What Have I Noticed Running at Altitude?
I know this is what everyone is dying to know…so let’s break it down.
We moved to Denver from sea level around December 1st and I definitely noticed that it was harder for me to keep my heart rate down during runs, which meant going slower to continue doing Low Heart Rate training.
Over the following 3 months, I was traveling almost every 3 to 4 weeks, which means I have yet to have a long consecutive period of training in Denver. However, I do know that I start to adjust during each period because when I leave and come back I am immediately feeling that it’s harder to breathe again. Having talked to a lot of runners here, many of them said it was at least a year before they really felt like they could pick their pace back up and felt strong running.
We’ve now been in Denver for 3 years and I can truly tell the difference. Now, I was injured for most of 2017 which knocked my mileage way off, but 2018 was great! Post surgery, I had to climb back to my old endurance, but then I went to a couple races.
- Going down to sea level made my breathing feel so good, that it was absolutely easier to run faster.
- I still train a little slower at altitude because I watch my HR, but that is slowly improving too.
- I still notice when we go from 5,500 feet in Denver to a trail that starts at 7,000 feet.
- I’ve learned that training fast when you get to sea level is a great way to take advantage of both.
- When I return from traveling for over a week, I still notice a couple runs where my breathing has to readjust.
Overall I love living here, so the training here is great, even if I feel a little slower some days!
Have you ever run at altitude?
Ever experienced altitude sickness?
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