Running At High Altitude: Training Guide!

If you are planning to head to the mountains to do some running at high altitude, you need to know what to expect. As a person goes from sea level to high altitude, they can expect an impact on performance. Conversely, if you train in the mountains then return to a lower altitude, you may see some benefits and improvement.

One thing worth noting, however, is that a short period of time at altitude will not have a lasting impact on your running performance. In other words, taking a week-long training vacation in the mountains then returning home to race a marathon will not net a performance improvement.

Research does show that three weeks or more of training at a high altitude can produce some of the performance results desired by endurance athletes.

How Does Altitude Affect Running?

Since the impacts of altitude start to show as soon as 2,000 feet above sea level, it does not take long before climbing higher and higher has a more profound impact. Why is this? What exactly is happening?

Well, as you climb, the oxygen content in your blood drops. Due to the drop in oxygen content, oxygen is diffusing into the blood cells more slowly. Since there is a decrease in oxygenation, the blood is passing through the lungs and it has not been completely recharged with oxygen from the air.

A drop in VO2 Max will correspond with a drop in oxygenation of the blood.

What Is Considered High Altitude For Running?

If you have a fancy smartwatch of one type or the other, you have probably looked at the elevation change of your favorite running routes. For trail runners on jaunts through the mountains, these runs may be a daily occurrence. 

Although an athlete will start to see the effects of altitude as low as 2,000 feet above sea level, most people do not think “high altitude” until you venture considerably higher.

High altitude is considered over 8,000 feet above sea level.

Honore MacCoy-Patty on altitude running
Photo Credit: Honore MacCoy-Patty

Honore MacCoy-Patty

Honore is an endurance athlete who thrives on running trails at high elevations. According to her, the first thing she had to learn was that when running through the mountains, you need to accept that there will be a mixture of running, walking and hiking. In addition to the effects of altitude, you have the terrain to contend with. The above photo was taken at the Grand Canyon 50K.

How Much Slower Do You Run at Altitude?

There is a mathematical equation to figure out how much running at elevation will slow you down. For purposes of this equation, let’s assume that everything else is equal. Take trails, mountains and other external factors out of the mix.

Every 100 feet of climbing costs an elite runner roughly 20 seconds. On the other hand, an average Joe who logs roughly 10-minute miles will lose closer to 40 seconds.

What if you are not climbing up a hill; rather, you are running at elevation? Studies show that a 10K runner at 8,200 feet of altitude will slow down roughly 7%.

People who are just visiting a place at a higher altitude often report slowing down as much as a minute per mile of pace.

What To Expect When Running At High Altitude?

When running at a high altitude you may experience the following:

It is harder to breathe.

It hurts to breathe.

You may get a headache.

Some runners experience nausea.

Terry Kelley on running at high altitude
Photo Credit: Terry Kelley

Terry Kelley: The above photo was taken at the highest point in the Bolder Boulder race. Touted as “America’s All-Time Best 10K”, this run is not for the faint of heart. As the sign reads, “sea level is for slackers.”

Tips For Training At Altitude

If you find yourself visiting the mountains, moving to a high altitude area, or having an opportunity to train at altitude, there are some tips of wisdom handed down by those in the know.

  1. Hydrate
  2. Avoid alcohol
  3. Slow down
  4. Don’t be afraid to take walk breaks!
  5. Fuel adequately (including additional carbs)
  6. Get enough rest!

Is It Easier To Run In Lower Elevation?

When talking about the polar opposite to running at high altitude, you find yourself wondering if it is easier to run in lower elevation.

Especially if you live at a high altitude, running at a lower altitude will seem a whole lot easier. It will be easier to breathe and you will feel downright light on your feet.

You do also need to take other factors into consideration. External aspects such as weather and your overall training plan will also have an impact on if you run easier or faster when you go to a lower altitude.

Altitude For Mere Mortals?

When tasked with investigating running at altitude it’s easy to find yourself thinking like an elite. We all know that many of the elites train at altitude. We also know some of them live high and train low.

What that means is they live in a higher altitude and go down to a bit lower altitude for their hard training runs. This way they get the best of both worlds.

For us mere mortals, if you happen to visit someplace with a high altitude, go ahead and go for a run. Expect to be challenged. Decide ahead of time that it is okay to slow down. If you  are there for any length of time be patient with your body as you acclimate.

When you return to sea level, pay attention to your body. You will probably find that it feels a heck of a lot easier to do the same things you were doing before your trip, or at altitude.

Sea Level To Altitude

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