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High Altitude Training Benefits and 5 Pro Tips!

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Professional runners have more in common than running fast—a lot of them live at altitude. Why? Because living at high elevations can improve running performance at sea level.

Living and training at altitude can improve endurance because the higher you go, the less oxygen is in the air. This makes the body work harder and become proficient at running with less oxygen.

While it feels harder running at altitude for a time, your running performance may improve when you return to sea level.

In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of altitude training, plus give altitude training tips so you can reap the benefits of training high or succeed at your next race at elevation.

So, let’s go!

How does altitude affect running?

When a runner trains at altitude (or high altitude, which is defined as 5,000 feet and higher), their bodies will undergo changes due to the reduced amount of oxygen in the air:

  • their heart rate and respiratory rate will increase to counter the lower partial pressure of oxygen in the air;
  • their VO2 max (which is how much oxygen is absorbed by the blood during exercise) will be reduced;
  • their kidneys will make more of the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO, which stimulates the bone marrow to make more oxygen-carrying red blood cells;
  • the kidneys will also excrete more EPO, which will reduce the lactate threshold, making that burning sensation in the muscles happen sooner when running; and
  • there will be an increase in mitochondria (important for energy production) and oxidative enzymes that help clear up free radicals.

Does running at altitude help?​

Research supports that training at high altitudes (for at least three weeks) can also improve performance and translate to increased endurance at sea level. ​​

That’s because the lower oxygen levels force your body to compensate for working with less oxygen. When you return to sea level, those changes are in place to make you a more efficient machine. ​

5 benefits of altitude training

Running in high elevation can spur physiological changes that can improve running performance at sea level.

The benefits of altitude training when you return to sea level may include increases in:

  1. speed
  2. strength
  3. endurance
  4. recovery
  5. mental toughness

Do you run slower at altitude?

While running at altitude can make you run faster at sea level, you will run slower while in high elevation.

Except for all-out sprints, your running pace at altitude will be slower and feel harder. Your VO2 max will drop. Your breath will increase. And you will reach your lactate threshold sooner.

Research shows for every hundred feet of elevation gain; you can expect your pace to slow an average of 6.6 percent per mile.

If you aren’t good at math, don’t worry. Famed running coach Jack Daniels’ has a calculator to adjust your paces for running at altitude.

There is one exception: If you are doing sprints (anaerobic running that doesn’t require the use of oxygen), you can expect to run faster at altitude due to the decrease in air resistance (aka thinner air).

What is train low, live high?

Because running intensity is decreased at altitude, many pro athletes will use the training method of Live High/Train Low, which means they will reap the beneficial physiological benefits that occur at elevation by living there but will do their workouts at lower elevations so they can keep the intensity of their training.

Does altitude affect VO2 max?

Yes, while running at a high altitude, your VO2 max will decrease. Research shows that for every 1,000 feet of elevation above 1,000 feet above sea level, you can expect your VO2 max to drop by 1.9 percent. (And, the fitter you are, the bigger the drop.)

This is because there is less oxygen to breathe in, which means there is less oxygen for your body to absorb into the blood.

A lower VO2 max doesn’t necessarily mean that you will run slower at sea level, however. Studies of elite runners have shown that running economy (oxygen use at a given velocity) better predicts performance.

What negative effects can altitude training have?

Training at a high altitude can decrease your VO2 max your lactate threshold and lead to shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, nausea, and altitude sickness, including headaches, nausea, difficulty sleeping, and loss of appetite.

Also, you can lose weight recover slower, and the increase in red blood cells makes the blood thicker, increasing health risks such as heart attack or stroke.

How long does it take to adjust to high-altitude running?

Studies show that it can take:

  • at least 3 weeks to adjust to an altitude of 3,000 meters, or higher;
  • one to two weeks for moderate altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 meters;
  • and 3 to 5 days for low altitude of 500 to 2,000 meters.

How long do the effects of altitude training last?

The effects of altitude training last about two weeks. A study using simulated altitude exposure for 18 days, followed by training at sea level, showed performance gains still evident 15 days later.

If you have a trip or a race coming up at altitude, use these tips to adjust to training in higher elevation.

5 Tips to Acclimate to Altitude

1. Simulate altitude

One way you can acclimate to altitude faster is by simulating living or training in thin air by wearing a high-altitude training mask or hypoxic mask (which will cost you about $40).

These training masks simulate being in thin air by restricting airflow into your mouth, making it harder to breathe. They do not adjust the air pressure, however.

The manufacturer’s claim that this works to strengthen respiratory muscles and create hypoxemia (reduced blood oxygen levels), with the ultimate goal of enhanced performance. There is limited research to support this claim, with some research refuting it.

What seems more effective are hypoxic chambers that some gyms have with treadmills inside. In these sealed rooms, the oxygen content of the air is lower and does a great job of simulating altitude.

2. Give yourself time

If you signed up for a race at altitude, ideally, you would be able to travel to the location for at least two weeks before the race to allow yourself time to acclimate to the thinner air.

If you cannot do this and cannot use one of the simulation methods mentioned above, prepare to run and recover slower.

3. Run slower

You will run slower at altitude, especially if you are higher than 2,000 feet. Prepare to run by feel and don’t focus on paces. You can use this calculator to estimate how fast you may run.

Focus on your breathing and take walk breaks as needed. Your body is working hard to adjust to the lack of oxygen. Be kind to it.

4. Hydrate and eat carbs

Running at altitude also decreases your thirst, so be conscious of your hydration and eat more carbs so that you retain more fluids.

5. Increase your recovery

Oxygen is key to recovery so when there is less of it, expect slower recovery times. As your body acclimates to the higher elevation, increase your recovery time as much as possible. One study recommends a 1:3 ratio of work bouts and recovery.

There are risks and benefits associated with altitude training. Bear in mind while most U.S. Olympic athletes train at altitude, it is not right for everyone.

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