Altitude training for runners is crucial for anyone who plans to run a race at high altitude, who lives in any area within 1,000 feet of sea level.
Whether you’re planning on running an endurance race in a country/state with high altitude, or whether you’ll be on a vacation in one of those areas and plan to keep up your running schedule while you’re there, the altitude levels will effect your performance.
In this post, we’re going to look at:
- WHY elevation decreases your physical performance
- How this affects endurance runners at elevation (plus how to estimate performance decreases)
- How to adjust your pace to compensate for the altitude you’re running at
- 4 techniques and resources for altitude training when you’re not at altitude).
Let’s jump in!
The Physical Effects of Running at Altitude
Why does altitude have such a potent effect on runners?
As you get farther and farther above sea level, the makeup of the air changes, which then creates effects on our bodies.
You’ve probably heard that you’ll experience shortness of breath at high altitudes. The reason for this is directly related to the amount of oxygen in the air as it rises. As your lungs inhale, the blood that flows through your lungs don’t get recharged with oxygen as fully as they normally do at lower levels.
Because of the low oxygen content in your blood, the oxygen diffuses into the red blood cells more slowly, which then causes that shortness of breath.
This whole process directly correlates to VO2 Max, which is the measure of oxygen absorbed by your blood during exercise.Many runners work on strengthening their VO2 Max to help them fun faster and gain endurance. When those levels drop, runners end up running more slowly. While VO2 Max is not a direct indicator of running performance, it’s a close enough method to measure your runs in greater detail.
Other effects of running at altitude are dizziness, nausea, and altitude sickness. Altitude sickness manifests as headaches, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping. For athletes who exercise in extremely high altitudes without training (the Patagonia, for example), the effects can be so strong they’ll end up in the hospital.
Keep in mind that most runners don’t notice the effects of altitude until 3,000 feet above sea level.
What These Effects Look Like in Your Endurance Race
Let’s use VO2 Max to measure what the effects of altitude have on your running.
VO2 Max drops by 1.9% per each increase of 1,000 feet of altitude.
Different people have different tolerance to altitude, which means two equally fit runners could have totally different results. That means you’ll have to either: wait until you get there to find out how it affects you, or use some altitude simulation tools that will help you gauge your body’s reaction to altitude.
Regardless of individuality, we do know that your run in high altitude would be significantly slower than a run at sea level.
The good news is: the longer you’re in a high altitude location the more your body adapts to the oxygen levels.
Note: The effects of altitude are more sharply felt by endurance athletes than sedentary people because of the intensity of your exercise and the conditioning that you’ve done on your body throughout the course of your running training.
How to Adjust Your Pace to Train for Running at High Altitude
For sprints and fast runs, your speed may actually be faster, since the level of air resistance is lower at altitude. In this article, we’re primarily focusing on endurance running, so we’ll take a look at training techniques for endurance races such as marathons and ultramarathons.
Lisa, a physical therapist with a passion for working with runners, who is also the owner of Running With Goldens, shares her biggest tip for running at high altitude.
“Adjust your pace 2 minutes slower per mile than your training pace during your warm up.
This will allow you to test your lungs and see how much you think you can handle during the meat of the run. Once you have warmed up at a slower pace, make sure to listen to your body and don’t expect to beat a PR.
Focus on your breathing and take breaks as needed.”
“At 5000 feet of altitude, the adjustment for Interval and Threshold runs would be about 8-10 seconds PER MILE (about 2-3 sec per 400m) SLOWER than the sea-level paces.
At 7000 feet of altitude the adjustment is more like 15-18 seconds per mile slower than sea level.
To simplify, figure about 1+ seconds per 400 meters (4-5 sec/mile) per 1000 feet above 3000 feet of altitude, at 4000 alt = 4-5 sec/mile, 5000 alt = 8-10 sec/mile, 6000 alt = 12-15 sec/mile, 7000 alt = 16-20 sec/mile, 8000 alt = 20-25 sec/mile, etc.”
Use Daniels’ calculator to find your own ideal pace adjustment.
What is thresholding?
Threshold training is made up of steady, prolonged runs called tempo runs or intermittent runs with brief recoveries called cruise intervals. Both of these are run at the same intensity. The purpose of threshold training is to build up your endurance.
To give you a quick reference of how much effor to exert on a threshold run, it’s roughly 88-92% of your heart rate maximum.
4 Techniques and Resources for Altitude Training for Runners
There are many different ways to train for altitude running by simulating the effects and allowing your body to adapt. Here are the top four.
1. Training at High Altitude Levels
Running coach Carina Heiler gives practical advice on how long it actually takes to adapt to higher altitudes.
“Adjusting to altitude takes about 3 weeks, with the worst performance being 3-6 days after arriving at high altitude. So that means if you have a race at high altitude, coming in a few weeks early will really help your performance.”
Pro athletes train often train at altitude – meaning 8,000ft / 2,400m or above – or as close to this altitude as they can. This promotes a higher number of red-blood cells, and a more efficient use of the oxygen in your blood.
Unfortunately, taking that much time away from your work and life is not always possible. The next 3 options allow you train in the best way possible before your race.
2. Use an Altitude Mask
Becca Pizzi, a professional endurance marathoner, ran the Volcano Marathon in Chile at 15,000 feet of altitude, while training in Boston (which is at sea level).
“I knew I had to do everything I could do give myself a fair shot at such high altitude. One thing that really helped me was training in a high altitude training mask. I trained with one around a track, twice a week for three months. I turned up the resistance each week until it was all the way up.
This really helped me and I placed 2nd female in the Volcano Marathon. The training mask works off memory to make your muscle memory stronger to build stamina. After running over 80 marathons, I can tell you: altitude training is no joke – it is blindsiding.”
There are two types of training masks you can use: Elevation masks and Hypoxic masks.
Elevation masks restrict the flow of air into your mouth, making it harder to breathe. While the effect of elevation masks are similar to the feeling you may experience at altitude, the truth is that breathing at altitude is harder because there is less oxygen in the air, not because you’re breathing through a restriction.
These masks do provide resistance training and lung strengthening. Just bear in mind that they are not a totally accurate simulation of breathing at altitude.
The Hypoxic mask is strapped to your face whilst you run on a treadmill, delivering air to you with less oxygen content, which ends up providing a more authentic high altitude experience.
3. A Hypoxic Chamber
A great way to simulate altitude while training is to find a gym with a hypoxic chamber – these are sealed rooms where the oxygen content is lowered to simulate altitude. They typically have a few treadmills, exercise bikes and light weightlifting in them.
4. Follow a High Carb Diet
Heiler also recommends countering the effects of altitude with your diet.
“Another thing to consider when running at high altitude is that the body has a diminished thirst response and greater amount of water loss which means you need to be very conscious of staying hydrated.
Remember that the best training plan is the one you can follow consistently. So if you live near a hypoxic chamber, make that your altitude training! If not, order a hypoxic mask and focus on a high carbohydrate diet leading up to the race. It’s that simple.
Either way, try to arrive at your race destination as early as possible! If you can make 3 days before the race – great. If you can make it a week before the race – even better!
If you’re planning an ultramarthon in the future but havn’t started training yet, download our free ultramarathon training guide to get started.
Then check out these incredible world-wide trail running destinations for inspiration.