Running at altitude – What to expect and how to prepare

Jan 5, 2021

Running at high altitude

For almost 10 years, before I moved to the Cape, I trained and raced at high altitudes, competing at provincial level for triathlons and racing middle distance road running competitively. Dullstroom, Lyndenburg and Nelspruit were my stomping grounds and it never really felt too challenging because I had adapted to those conditions over time.

After 5 years of living and training in Cape Town at sea level, I recently took a trip to Limpopo and naturally did some running while I was there. At an altitude of 4500 feet compared to 20 feet, I definitely felt the difference and found myself heaving my way through a relatively easy pace, accompanied by some colourful language!

So, what is altitude and how does it affect the human body?

According to National Geographic:

“Altitude is the distance above sea level and is most often measured in feet.

High-altitude locations are usually much colder than areas closer to sea level. This is due to the low air pressure. Air expands as it rises, and the fewer gas molecules—including nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide—have fewer chances to bump into each other.

The human body reacts to high altitudes. Decreased air pressure means that less oxygen is available for breathing. One normal effect of altitude is shortness of breath, since the lungs have to work harder to deliver oxygen to the bloodstream. It can take days and even weeks for a body to adjust to high altitude and low air pressure.”

For running and endurance sports, training and adapting at altitude can have significant benefits for performance, especially for elite or pro athletes who train at higher altitudes for weeks and months on end. These benefits include a boost in oxygen-carrying red blood cells – EPO is the hormone that stimulates this and it spikes to a maximum within 24-48 hours of arriving in a high altitude area. This boost can improve the delivery of oxygen from your lungs to the working muscles, which helps you to run faster – a natural and legal ‘doping’ option! Another mental benefit of training at higher, uncomfortable altitudes is that this can help you become a more resilient and “tougher” runner that can tolerate higher levels of discomfort – and we all know how uncomfortable running can be sometimes.

Popular high altitude training areas include:

  • Iten, Kenya: 7000 feet
  • Boulder, Colorado: 7000 feet
  • Dullstroom, South Africa: 6000 feet

As altitude increases, your oxygen levels will decrease. Due to less oxygen in the air, your body will have less oxygen to transport in your blood to your muscles. This is why during runs at high altitudes (for those not altitude-adapted) your energy expenditure will become harder, and you will find it harder to breathe with simultaneously slower performance times when doing the same activity at sea level.

BUT despite the benefits above, if you aren’t an elite or pro athlete you will probably not benefit substantially from altitude training, at least compared to the benefits that can achieved by optimising all the other key components of a training plan like nutrition, rest, speedwork, consistency and strength training. If you are a recreational or everyday runner, it is probably wiser to focus on creating habits that address all of the above before you jump on the altitude training bandwagon.

After my experience running short runs for 10 days at altitude, I will be honest – I don’t think I adapted or benefited from this “training” physically, but it certainly made me feel more comfortable with being uncomfortable, and helped me attack my running back in Cape Town with passion, enthusiasm and zest.

If you are planning a trip to a high altitude area, these helpful tips for before, during and after your trip will help you get “high” and feel less “dead” during your training:

  • Include plenty of iron-rich foods like green leafy veggies, high protein food choices and even an iron supplement.
  • Increase the amount of water you consume.
  • Sleep more and ensure it is quality rest.
  • Avoid doing too much – cramming in loads of training will stress your immune system and interfere with your body’s ability to boost red blood cell production. Reduce your mileage by about 25% for the first week.
  • Run intuitively – ditch your watch and focus on effort, not pace.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine and excessive amounts of sugar.
  • Increase nutritious carbohydrates like wholegrains and starchy vegetables like potatoes and butternut.
  • At altitude, run for the same number of minutes that a typical run for mileage would take at sea level.

The harder the hill, the steeper the climb, the better the view from the finishing line. – Paul Newman

Christine Prokopiak

Christine is a running coach and nutrition specialist based with Sole Buddies #LiveLife in Cape Town. She is also the co-anchor for the GerhardandChristineLiveLife podcast, and co-founder of For The Long Run, a social upliftment project and registered NPO in Fisantekraal. Read more about Sole Buddies here. 

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