altitude running

Getting High: Tips for running at altitude

altitude running.jpg

by Allison Macsas

The mountains. For runners, it brings to mind beautiful scenery, cool summer temps, an escape from the pavement and the allure of magical fitness benefits. For many, it also brings a lot of apprehension about the altitude – will I be able to breathe? Will I get headaches? Will my legs be able to get me up (or even down?) the hills?

Nearly all of our running trips take place at high (or at least high-ish). Our runners take on elevations of up to 5500 ft. in Slovenia, 3500-5000 ft in Bend, 3000-7000 ft in Morocco, 6500-8000 ft. in Tahoe and 5000-8400 ft. in Kenya. Surprisingly, the trip that seems to feature the most mountains in photos – Patagonia – is the one destination with no real altitude to speak of. Most of our participants are traveling from sea level and are rightfully concerned about how to handle the “thin air,” so we thought others might be interested too. Here are some of our suggestions for an enjoyable running experience at altitude:

No, you aren’t out of shape. Or maybe you are! But, whatever your fitness level was at home yesterday is still the same here in [enter destination] today. What HAS changed is the atmospheric pressure. There is not actually “less oxygen” at altitude, but there is less atmospheric pressure, which causes oxygen molecules to be dispersed, which causes you to capture fewer of those molecules with each breath than you would at sea level. This is the cause of the shortness of breath (or, you know, gasping) experienced when walking up stairs or attempting to run your typical paces.

No, you probably won’t acclimate. The general belief is that it takes about two weeks to begin to acclimate to altitude, and up to several months to fully acclimate (meaning, your body begins producing enough red blood cells to speed up oxygen transfer). Unless you’re lucky enough to be stuck in the mountains all summer, the running probably won’t get much easier, nor will you gain any true physiological boosts. Sorry ‘bout that.

Find your pace. I promise, you WILL be slower at altitude. Drastically slower if any sort of inclines are involved (and I don’t know of many high altitude places where inclines are not involved!). It’s okay! Figure out how much you have to back off to keep your heart rate at a relatively normal level – it’s all about effort, not pace. If you cannot keep yourself from looking down at your watch, leave it behind or stick some tape over it. Pace does not matter. Effort matters.

Walk up, run down. This is a technique often used in ultra running, which is often done at high altitude. If your heartrate is shooting up every time that you hit a hill, leaving you gasping for air and feeling lightheaded, then it’s time to utilize this strategy. You’ll be far more efficient hiking uphill and running down than you will trying to run uphill only to end up requiring break after break after break. It’s all about forward motion… and you can still call it a run. Cause we said so.

But do take some breaks. Chances are, you are surrounded by gorgeous views. Take the time to take it in, and regain your composure in the process. Win-win-win.

Drink up. The humidity is low, the sun is strong and moisture is evaporating quickly from both your skin and your lungs. No matter how cool the air feels or how “short” the run, bring along a handheld or a hydration pack. And don’t forget the chapstick.

Sleep it off. Your runs will take a lot longer and you’ll be working that much harder when running, so you’ll tend to be extra exhausted afterward. You’re going to sleep deeply, and you’re going to want to sleep a long time – let it happen! This is not the place for late nights and pre-dawn alarm clocks. Save that for the city.

Don’t panic! Everyone handles altitude differently – fun fact: it’s a gene thing, not a fitness thing! – and there’s no way to know exactly how you’ll react until you get there. Some extra-sensitive people may experience minor headaches or significantly increased resting heartrates at elevations as low as 6000 ft., but it’s rare.  Most people can get to 8000 ft. (or well above!) before really noticing the effects at rest; most people have to go much higher before there is any risk of more serious conditions like HAPE or HACE. Other than a restless first night of sleep, we’ve never witnessed any ill effects on our runners in any of our destinations (note: this excludes those who climb Kilimanjaro. That’s an entirely different beast). If you’re coming from a hot, humid climate, chances are that you’ll actually choose altitude as the lesser of two evils.

So, relax. Slow down. Sip your water. And get excited about all of the great things that the mountains have to offer!