Some people say altitude is the great equalizer – you can be short or tall, athletic or overweight and still feel the debilitating effects that high altitude has on your body. But you can mitigate these effects to a large extent by being prepared – mentally and physically.
If you are looking for a definitive guide on high altitude running than you are at the right place. You will find information related to all of the following:
- Difference between running at high altitude and running on plains
- Benefits for training on higher altitude
- Risk related to higher terrain running
- How to prepare for a high altitude run when you still in plains
- Tips for running at high altitudes
Why is Running at High Altitude Different from Running in the Plains/ Flat Terrain?
Before we start trying to overcome the impact of high altitude, we need to understand its impact on the body. When you reach a higher altitude place, there are some noticeable changes (like faster breathing, frequent urination, increased heart rate & higher BP, headaches, nausea, sleep disruptions, drop in appetite) and some not-so-noticeable-changes (like increase in RBC count, thickening of blood, etc) happening as your body tries to adapt to your new surroundings.
This is because at an elevation, the reduced air pressure allows oxygen molecules to spread out, so every breath has less oxygen compared to sea level. This decreases the amount of oxygen getting to the muscles, making it harder to breathe. This in turn means the body needs to work harder to distribute oxygen throughout the tissues and process nutrient exchanges. Additionally, there is an increased risk of dehydration. You can even get sick if you are going too high, too fast without acclimating to the low oxygen level. And if we add physical exercise like running to this mix, things get even harder.
Why you should include High-Altitude Training to your running programme
If you are willing to brave the potential uncomfortable transition to high-altitude running, it does offer a variety of benefits –> increased VO2 max, increased red blood cells, increased athletic performance, increased muscle and strength, and improved stamina upon returning to lower altitude.
But do keep in mind that these positive effects are temporary and these benefits of high-altitude acclimatization are likely to wear off in 2-3 weeks of arriving nearer to sea level (dependant on how long you had spent training at high altitude)
Alternatively, the effects of training at high altitudes can also come with a risk.
At higher altitude, not all signs/ symptoms are pleasant or, for that matter, produce the desired performance enhancements. A few people training at high altitudes may experience negative side effects such as High Altitude Sickness (HAS) or Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), the milder signs of which include headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, coughing, nausea, vomiting, and confusion to more problematic and life-threatening issues such as pulmonary or cerebral edema. Seeking advice from a medical professional should always be the first step before determining if altitude training is appropriate for you.
Now let us get down to brass tacks.
How to prepare while you are still at lower altitude/ on plains?
Because some ‘Pre Altitude preparation’ never hurts
1. Prepare yourself mentally
Be prepared mentally. Regardless of how good your training plan is/has been, a lot of races are won or lost based on how mentally strong and prepared you are. Remember that sometimes the mind gives up earlier than the body. Especially when the brain is operating at an oxygen deficit at higher altitudes. Staying positive and knowing what’s coming up (route, elevation, topography, etc.) makes a huge difference. Hence training your brain to expect the suffering at high elevation is just as essential as training your body.
2. Train properly
Altitude also impacts the intensity of your runs hence adding high intensity training techniques that increase cardiovascular capacity, like interval and hill training, can help limit the effects of altitude by being prepared for the stress of altitude.
If you know there are rapid elevations/ climbs in your route, include leg-strengthening exercises in your workout plan. If you cannot take out time to pre-train at elevation/ hills, build stair-climbing into your running plan. You can also consider using a treadmill for incline simulation.
Another way to simulate the impact of high altitude is to train in hot conditions since in extreme heat, the body undergoes a similar plasma-building process (but without adding more RBC). Additionally running in hot and humid conditions, lets your body and mind get a sense for increased perception of effort at the same pace.
3. Iron supplementation
Increase iron fortified foods in your diet. You can also take an iron supplement while training at sea level to make sure the body is primed for acclimatization.
4. Practice fueling on long runs
Being at higher altitude, puts the body under stress where you might not only dehydrate more quickly but also get stomach distress (GI) issues. Hence perfecting a hydration and nutrition plan, while practising at sea level would help get a feel for different exertion levels
5. Some other ideas
There is also a popular training maxim “Train low, sleep high,” which basically means train / run as hard as possible at higher oxygen levels (lower altitude) and then seek out thinner air (higher altitude) to sleep so the body produces extra red blood cells. This can be done more easily if you live in mountains and can drive down to train. But for those living at sea level, they can try sleeping in an altitude tent, which scrubs oxygen from the surrounding air. But this is an expensive option.
There is an alternative method (and less expensive) to experience high altitude training- use a running mask. The running masks work in a simple way. They limit the airflow you draw in when you breathe, hence forcing your respiratory system to work harder.
Higher Altitude Training Tips
Whether you only want to ‘up your game’ or are planning to race at high altitude, you would need to visit mountain regions on a regular basis to benefit your training – even if it is just for the weekends. It is not the same as training there, but it can certainly help.
Also, try and arrive at your destination a couple of weeks early to prepare so that your body has time to adapt to the lack of oxygen and also to help you get familiar with the terrain.
2. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.
Drink large amounts of water. You need to drink more water than you are used to drinking. It’s very easy to become dehydrated because you are breathing more shallowly and more frequently so you lose water through respiration. Additionally, the air is very dry with low humidity so the sweat dries quickly potentially ‘not triggering’ the normal urge to drink. So be aware of signs of dehydration in your body like nausea, headaches, chapped lips, and a lack of sweat. On the flip side, avoid drinking too much water, which can dilute the sodium levels and can increase risk of hyponatremia
Two good rules to help you strike a healthy balance: (1) Weigh yourself before and after a run to know how much fluid you need to replace, and (2) Check the colour of your urine. Pale yellow urine means adequate hydration while a dark stream spells dehydration.
3. Avoid alcohol and Caffeine.
Both alcohol and caffeine are diuretics and can cause dehydration which will slow adjustment to altitude as the body again is expelling more water and further stressing the kidneys.
4. Maintain iron levels
At higher altitudes, as the body starts making more RBC, it needs more iron, so include iron-rich foods, like greens, red meat, etc. along with Vitamin C to help with iron absorption.
5. Increase carbohydrate intake
Try to increase carbs to 70% of total calories if you are doing a longer run. Our bodies require less oxygen to process carbohydrates and, initially, at higher altitude the body will use more carbs as fuel.
6. Get more sleep.
Sound sleep is essential for good recovery- even more so at higher altitudes. But getting some good quality sleep is made difficult by the thin air which runners are not used to. So, you need to build in extra sleep time to assist your body to repair, replenish and rejuvenate while adapting to the new environment.
7. Modify your training plan.
This could mean not only slowing down your easy running pace but also taking longer recovery time/ rest (during interval training) and slowing down even your threshold running pace (during tempo runs).
8. Train by effort and not by time
You should try and measure your runs basis effort (breathing or heart rate) rather than time based. Time or pace based running could be counterintuitive in high altitudes because it requires more effort from your body than sea level. By focusing on how to run by effort and learning to pace with your breath or by the demands of your body, you will learn to be able to increase and decrease your intensity as you go up or down the elevation.
9. Control Your Breathing
Given the lower oxygen at higher elevations, you should try inhaling more deeply so that more oxygen can enter your body with every breath.
10. Include a longer warm up
At the hills, try to include a slightly longer warm up as compared to sea level. This allows the heart rate and breathing rate to gradually increase and helps avoid taxing your body too much too quickly.
11. Slow down.
At high altitudes you ideally should (or might even be forced to) slow your easy running pace. Do not try to exert yourself to run at your ‘normal’ running pace. Running at altitude can leave most runners short of breath. Take any hills/ elevation very slowly or even walk them so your breathing and heart rate are not too laboured.
12. Walk up, run down.
If your heart rate is going up really high every time that you run up a hill, utilize the strategy of hiking uphill and running down. This will also help cut down on possible breaks you might need if you try to run up a hill
13. Do a Shakeout Run Immediately
Some also advocate going on an easy, 30-minute run as soon as possible once you arrive at the higher elevation. It allows your body to get a taste of what to expect and also re-energizes you from the journey.
Preparing/ Training for high altitude runs/ races is not rocket-science. A general lifestyle of clean eating, good hydration and sound-sleep along with a regular and disciplined training programme with the right balance/variety will help you succeed at any race