For many years now, elite runners have been spending weeks, if not months, at “training camps” or locations away from home. They pack their belongings and make camp locations that are often somewhat remote. These aren’t vacations in disguise, meditation retreats or sorts, or trips to run a particular race.
Instead, the runners are traveling to elevation for high altitude training. High altitude training, or elevation training, can stimulate certain physiological adaptations that are beneficial to runners and endurance athletes.
High altitude training is often more realistic for professional runners who can pick up and relocate to a temporary home for training at elevation. Everyday runners most likely have lives and families that aren’t “running career” focused, which may make these trips a bit more challenging.
However, if you’re looking to see some impressive gains in your aerobic fitness, you might want to consider trying out a stint of high altitude training. In this guide, we will discuss the benefits of high altitude training for runners and how to do it properly to maximize the physiological effects of elevation.
We will cover:
- What Is High Altitude Training?
- What Is the Purpose Of High Altitude Training for Runners?
- Benefits Of High Altitude Training For Runners
- Drawbacks And Precautions With High Altitude Training For Runners
- What Is The “Live High, Train Low” Approach To High Altitude Training?
- How To Train For High Altitude
Let’s get started!
What Is High Altitude Training?
High altitude training refers to the practice of running, cross-training, and other workouts at elevations well above sea level.
In most cases, runners do their high altitude training at locations that are at least 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level and up to 10,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level.
High altitude training is mostly practiced by endurance athletes like marathoners and other runners, triathletes, cyclists, cross-country skiers, and swimmers.
What Is the Purpose of High Altitude Training for Runners?
If you’ve ever traveled to Mexico City, the Swiss Alps, Flagstaff, Arizona, or Machu Picchu, you’re probably well aware that the air is “thinner” at higher elevations. You were likely more breathless doing even slow walking, let alone hard running workouts.
At higher altitudes, the concentration of oxygen in the air is significantly less than it is at sea level. As a result, your lungs receive less oxygen every time you inhale, so your body tries to compensate by breathing faster and deeper.
The primary concept behind high elevation training is that spending time training at altitude forces your body to adapt to the lower levels of oxygen.
After you’ve adapted, when you go back to running and racing at sea level, the effort to breathe will feel comparatively easy. This will allow you to run faster without being breathless (pushing your anaerobic threshold to faster paces), resulting in improved performance.
Benefits of High Altitude Training for Runners
So, how exactly does subjecting your body to less oxygen improve performance? Here are the physiological benefits of high altitude training for runners:
#1: High Altitude Training Increases the Production of Red Blood Cells
Because there is less oxygen in the air, your body has to become more efficient at delivering the precious oxygen molecules to your muscles.
Research shows that high altitude training increases the production of erythropoietin, the protein that stimulates the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen, so the more you have, the more oxygen your muscles will receive while you run.
#2: High Altitude Training Increases Your Aerobic Capacity
Enhanced oxygen delivery to muscles improves your VO2 max, a measure of your aerobic capacity. Evidence suggests that high altitude training improves aerobic endurance and VO2 max at sea level.
#3: High Altitude Training Increases Lactate Threshold
Studies suggest that high altitude training increases lactate threshold, allowing you to run faster without becoming overcome with fatigue. The muscles become better at buffering the acidic metabolic byproducts of glycolysis (anaerobic metabolism).
#4: High Altitude Training Increases Your Metabolic Rate
If you’re looking to lose weight, elevation might be the extra boost to your metabolic rate you’re looking for. Studies show that energy expenditure in athletes undergoing high altitude training is 2.5–3 times higher than at sea level.
Drawbacks and Precautions With High Altitude Training for Runners
Of course, there are drawbacks or risks associated with high altitude training, including the following:
#1: Intensity Can Be Compromised
High altitude training is most effective if you’re actually able to do your workouts as they appear on your training schedule, but due to the low levels of oxygen in the air, it’s often very difficult, if not impossible, to run the pace you would at sea level.
While some degree of pace adjustment for high altitude training is fine, habitually running slower might negate the benefits.
#2: Recovery Is Slower
Because your body is getting less oxygen, recovery between workouts at high altitude can be slower, meaning you have to do fewer hard sessions per week with more recovery days in between.
The increased respiration rate at altitude means you’ll be exhaling more water vapor. For example, research demonstrates that respiratory water loss at high altitudes may be increased to 1900 mL per day in men and 850 mL per day in women, and urinary water loss may increase up to 500 mL per day as well.
Moreover, water evaporates faster at altitude, leaving you with a relatively dry shirt no matter how hard you’re working. This can make you feel like you don’t need to rehydrate as aggressively. Be sure you’re drinking plenty of water.
#4: Altitude Sickness
A sudden increase in the elevation you’re spending time in can result in altitude sickness. Symptoms can be mild to debilitating and include headache, nausea, appetite loss, fatigue, vomiting, pulmonary edema, and cerebral edema.
What Is the “Live High, Train Low” Approach to High Altitude Training?
Over the past decade or so, a variation of high altitude training has emerged called “Live High, Train Low” (LHTL). This practice involves living up at elevation (or simulating the conditions of high elevation) but doing the bulk of your training—at least the hard workouts—at lower elevations.
The purpose of “Live High, Train Low” high altitude training is to mitigate the primary drawback of standard high altitude training—the fact that it’s difficult to run fast and hit your goal paces at high altitudes.
Practically, “Live High, Train Low” high altitude training can involve actually living, sleeping, and spending the bulk of your time up at elevations of 7,000 feet or more and then driving down the mountain each day for your run. Some easy runs may be done at high altitude, but key workouts would mostly be done closer to sea level.
Alternatively, some runners practice “Live High, Train Low” high altitude training without ever leaving their home, no matter where in the world they live.
This approach to high altitude training can be accomplished by using what is known as an altitude tent to simulate the effects of being at higher elevations.
The altitude tent has its own air system and creates an oxygen deprivation environment. Runners sleep in the tent every night, subjecting their lungs to the lower levels of oxygen, much like the atmospheric conditions at elevation.
Every night during sleep, the body is forced to work harder to get enough oxygen extracted from the air, which over time, induces the physiological adaptations of being at high elevations.
How to Train For High Altitude
If you want to follow the lead of elite runners like Mo Farrah and Galen Rupp, who have used high altitude training to improve their aerobic fitness and running performance, here are tips for high altitude training for runners:
You can either try a stint of several weeks to a couple of months at an elevation at least 7,000 feet above sea level, or you can opt for the live high, train low (LHTL) approach.
Studies show the LHTL approach to high altitude training can provide many of the same benefits of living and training at elevation.
Give Yourself Time
It not only takes most runners a couple of days to acclimate to higher elevation and kick any symptoms of altitude sickness, but it also takes a minimum of 4-5 days for your body to start adapting and producing more erythropoietin.
Therefore, if you are going to a location at a higher altitude for the purpose of improving your fitness, you’ll need to budget at least a week or so to notice any gains at all.
Most experts say that these adaptations start leveling off after about 25 to 30 days at altitude, so if you want to maximize your spike in oxygen-carrying capacity while not disrupting your life too long, a high altitude training stint of 1 to 4 weeks is ideal for most runners.
Take Iron Supplements
Taking iron before you head off to elevation can prepare your body for reduced oxygen availability. Iron can bolster your ferritin levels and can maximize your hemoglobin concentration.
Olympic athletes undergoing high altitude training are advised to take 60-65 mg of elemental twice a day with vitamin C to increase absorption.
However, iron supplements aren’t necessary nor safe for all runners—and too much can be toxic. Therefore, you should consult your doctor before taking iron.
Get Extra Sleep
Your body does not recover as well at altitude so getting extra rest is vital. Consider taking naps or aiming for 9 to 10 hours of sleep.
Slow Your Pace
Particularly during the first several days at a higher elevation, run by effort and not by pace. Be prepared to slow down your training pace and give yourself extra recovery time between intervals.
For example, if you would normally do 10 x 400 meters at mile pace (say, 90 seconds for a 6 min mile pace) with 2 minutes of rest in between, modify the expectations at altitude to 10 x 400 meters at 92-93 seconds. You might even extend the rest to 2:30 or so, depending on how you feel.
Increase Your Caloric Intake
Your basal metabolic rate increases at higher altitudes, which can zap your body of extra energy for training. Bumping up your caloric intake by 10-20% can help ensure your body has enough energy and nutrients on board to fuel and recover from your runs.
Drink More Water
As mentioned, your body excretes more fluid at altitude, so it’s essential to double down on your hydration efforts. Dehydration can exacerbate the symptoms of altitude sickness and can compromise performance.
Have you ever done any high altitude training? Let us know if it worked for you.
You can check out our guide, Hydration and Salt Levels For Runners, to ensure you are properly hydrated at all times.