Running at altitude comes with it’s own set of rules. Altitude affects runners in different ways – shortness of breath is common, and dizziness or nausea are possible. Older runners tend to get affected easier than younger.
Some runners are interested in training to run races at high altitude, while others use altitude training to increase their VO2 max and their cardiovascular capacity at regular-altitude events.
How Does Altitude Affect Us?
It’s well known that high altitudes have a negative impact on our running performance. For every thousand feet of elevation increase above 1,000 feet above sea level, VO2 max max dropped by 1.9%. VO2 max is, roughly, a measure of your cardiovascular capacity – and while this is not a direct correlator for running performance, it’s close enough. The good news is that your body will gradually adjust to a new altitude, though never fully.
Preparing To Run A Race At Altitude
The most common approach to running a race at altitude is simply to arrive at the race location 2-3 days before the start of the race, to allow your body to adjust to the altitude. During the race, you can expect to feel more tired and out-of-breath than usual. Simply factor this in, and don’t over-exert or try and match your sea-level level of exertion.
How To Simulate Running At Altitude
There are a few ways you can simulate, or prepare for running at altitude if you live in a low-lying area.
The best, and most practical 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 weights in them – hopefully there is one near you. A similar approach is using a ‘hypoxic mask’ – this is a mask which is strapped to your face whilst you run on a treadmill, delivering to you air with less oxygen content (note: not to be confused with ‘elevation masks’, described next).
Some runners have tried training with an ‘elevation mask’, or ‘resistance mask’. These restrict the flow of air into your mouth, making it harder to breathe. While this effect is 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. So while these masks definitely provide some form of resistance training and lung strengthening, the science says it is not an accurate simulation of breathing at altitude.
It is possible to invest in an ‘altitude tent’ – this is a sealed tent you put around your bed with a device that lowers the oxygen content in the air, so as you sleep your body get acclimatized to the altitude conditions. However, these usually cost up to five figures(!), are usually used by hardcore mountain climbers.
The next option is to actually train at altitude, which may or may not be feasible depending on your circumstances. 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. The problem is, spending several weeks living on a mountain simply isn’t possible for many of us!
In summary, there are various methods at your disposal to simulate and prepare for running at altitude. If you can, do some work in a hypoxic chamber. At least try to travel to the start of the race two or three days early to allow your body to adjust.
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