Rising to the Occasion: Elevation Training for Marathoners

A man runs through the mountains.

Many of us dream of running along pristine alpine trails beside panoramic mountain ridges. The scenery can be breathtaking.

Unfortunately, so can the altitude.

That’s why elevation training is so important.  Dramatic, short-term changes in elevation can have drastic impacts on mental capacity and physical performance.  

If you’re planning to run in a foreign place, elevation gain is something you should always take into account.  High altitude running requires training and adjustment, but the rewards can be far more beneficial than a few alpine trails.

 

Altitude and the Human Body

If you haven’t experienced drastic changes in elevation while traveling, it might seem strange that the body can be starved for air after climbing a few thousand feet, but it’s true.

At higher elevations, the air pressure is lower, allowing molecules to “spread out” and become more widely dispersed.  That means less O2 per lungful. For those of us living closer to sea level, it also means that our bodies must learn to do more with less, which is why elevation training is important.

As you might guess, the body is wonderfully proficient at adapting to these new environments and can do so over a relatively short amount of time.  Vital signs increase, red blood cell production skyrockets, and bodily fluids are redistributed.

What’s more: just a few weeks at high elevations is enough to see these changes, even if you’ve never been at a high altitude before.  And that’s just for visiting the area!

If you’re running at altitude or engaging in some form of endurance training at higher elevations, you’re likely to see a few added benefits.

 

Elevation Training & How Our Bodies Respond

It’s probable that your first high altitude run won’t be a dream come true.  Your body will be struggling to compensate for the reduced oxygen, and your standard running pace may be more difficult to sustain.  

Our bodies respond to higher altitudes by sucking in air to get more oxygen into our bloodstream. This isn’t entirely effective, as our system is somewhat inefficient.  Our lungs only absorb about 4-6% of the available oxygen in the air with every breath.

Think of each red blood cell as a truck delivering vital raw materials to our muscle “factories.” At higher altitudes, each truck is only partially full, forcing production lines (and mile times) to slow. 

Each breath also expels water vapor. Because we are breathing at an accelerated pace, we lose water at a much higher rate — up to 1 and 2 liters during exercise at extreme altitudes!. We also urinate more at altitude, as our bodies eliminate additional water in order to concentrate the hemoglobin in our bloodstreams.

This is a good thing, as it aids in oxygen delivery, but we have to guard against dehydration. It also makes our blood thicker, so our hearts work harder to pump it.  These adaptations happen over the course of a few weeks and improve performance at altitude.  Elevation training can help push your body to its upper limits when resources are limited.

There’s a reason that Colorado Springs (6035 ft. above sea level) is home to the flagship US Olympic Training Center!

 

Preparing for a High-Altitude Run

As you might expect, the best way to mitigate the effects of altitude is to gradually acclimatize our bodies to higher elevations.  But elevation training can help.

Let’s say that you live at sea level but want to run the Inca Trail Marathon in June.  To really get ready to run that race at 11,000 feet, you might follow a travel schedule like this:

  • Spend one week in Brasilia (elevation 3,500 ft.).
  • Travel to Huánuco, Peru (6,000 ft.) and spend five days there.
  • Move on to Quito (9,000 ft.) for another week.
  • Relocate to Cuzco (11,000 ft) and the starting line about a week later.

If that seems impossible, you’re probably right.  In a perfect world, taking time away to fully acclimatize wouldn’t be a problem.  Jobs, families, bank accounts, and other details make such a tour of South America impossible for most of us.  

Fortunately, spending even a couple of days running at elevation in intermediate altitudes on the way to a high-altitude race can be beneficial.

Here are a few other ways to ease the suffering altitude sickness can cause:

  • Ramp up the training – Work on ways to deal with oxygen deprivation for the duration of your elevation training. This can include incorporating short sprints into your training runs. Add more uphill runs and elevation changes during your workout to increase the amount of work your muscles can perform before they shut down from oxygen starvation. Breath-holding exercises also can help by increasing lung capacity to suck in those elusive high-altitude oxygen molecules.

 

  • Hydrate – Low humidity goes hand-in-hand with high altitude. Sweat levels won’t give an accurate accounting of how much water is lost during a workout when running at elevation. Coupled with the water vapor lost because of our heavier breathing at altitude, extra hydration is imperative. If your urine is dark, force the fluids.

 

  • Maintain Proper Nutrition – Carb loading becomes even more important during long runs at altitude. You will need the fuel they provide, and the body can process starch into energy-rich sugars efficiently, without using too much precious oxygen in the process. At the same time, red meat and greens contain iron needed to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells, so mix in a steak and a salad. Avoid excess alcohol; it is a diuretic, making our bodies expel the water we need to avoid dehydration.

Running at altitude when we are not used to it will take a toll on our performance. Without time to acclimate, striving for a personal best probably is unrealistic, but with elevation training and time, it’s still a real possibility.

Remember: anytime you’re out there on the trail, you’re run as part of a larger purpose — to experience life and the world’s wonders.

Running at elevation gives us the opportunity to slow down and take in some scenery.  Find a high-altitude town where you can run, hike, and train.  Plan a trip and take in the sights. Once you’re there, all you have to do is find an alpine trail to call your own.

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