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The Benefits of Altitude Training for Non-Pro Runners

June 26, 2015

The Benefits of Altitude Training for Non-Pro Runners

Training at altitude–that is, between 6,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level–is like a legal performance enhancer, thanks to its ability to boost oxygen-carrying red blood cells. That’s why Nick Symmonds headed to the mountains of Mexico this past winter, Desi Davila Linden went to the Kenyan highlands, and other pro runners gathered in mountain towns like Flagstaff and Boulder for weeks or months at a time. Most coaches recommend spending at least two weeks at altitude, but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition: Even if you’ve got only a week to spare, training in the mountains can trigger physical and mental benefits that will last for several weeks after you return to sea level (Hutchinson, 2015).

The adaptations start almost immediately. Levels of EPO, a hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells, spike to a maximum within 24 to 48 hours of arriving at altitude. Studies with elite athletes have shown that levels of haemoglobin–the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen–can increase by about one per cent per week at altitude, which may translate into a one-to three-per cent boost in race performance. Best of all, there’s some evidence that non-elite athletes, who have lower levels of haemoglobin to start with, may experience an even bigger and quicker boost than elite endurance athletes do (Hutchinson, 2015).

It’s not all about blood tests, though. Mike Smith, who directs one-week altitude-training camps in Flagstaff for the Run SMART Project, points out that even short stints at altitude offer an advantage because the lack of oxygen makes the training feel harder. You can push hard and learn to tolerate greater discomfort without the added stress on your joints and muscles that would result from running faster or farther at sea level. Here’s how to give getting high a try (Hutchinson, 2015).

Lesotho Ultra Trail 2014 hosted by Maliba Lodge

Lesotho Ultra Trail 2014 hosted by Maliba Lodge

Plan your trip
Set aside at least seven days (10 is better), and choose a destination with good trails. Flagstaff, Boulder, and Albuquerque are popular, but the choice of mountain towns is endless. Timing your return may be tricky–some athletes feel off as they readjust to lower altitude, while some like to race shortly after arriving home. If it’s your first time, err on the side of caution, and come back two to three weeks before a goal race (Hutchinson, 2015).

You need adequate iron stores to boost hemoglobin levels, so include iron-rich foods–like red meat, beans, and dark leafy greens–in your diet before you leave and after you arrive. You also need to pay more attention to staying hydrated, since you’ll be losing fluid through your lungs and skin in the dry mountain air–“insensible” fluid loss that doesn’t trigger thirst as powerfully as sweat losses in more humid environments (Hutchinson, 2015).

Back Off
It’s tempting to cram as much hard work as possible into a short training getaway, but overdoing it when you arrive at altitude can overstress your immune system and interfere with your body’s ability to boost red blood cell production. For the first three days, stick to easy runs and reduce your mileage by 25 percent. If you feel good at that point, you can try intervals or tempo runs at half-marathon effort or slower. Progress to faster workouts only if you’re there for more than a week (Hutchinson, 2015).

Think Effort, not Pace
Depending on the elevation, your workouts will likely be three to 15 percent slower than usual. Ditch your watch and focus on running by feel, so that your effort matches your goals for the session. If you finish an easy run feeling like you’ve just run a hard race, you’re off-target (Hutchinson, 2015).

Hutchinson, A (2015) The Benefits of Altitude Training for Non-Pro Runners. https://www.runnersworld.com/mountain-training/the-benefits-of-altitude-training-for-non-pro-runners [Accessed 19 June 2015]

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