Competitor Group, Inc.

Altitude 101

by | Jul 12, 2010 |

This past week Sara and I returned to the mountains to begin what will be three months of pre-Chicago Marathon altitude training. I feel the benefits of altitude training are undeniable. While there are elite runners who run very fast without training at altitude, my experience on the track and road circuit is that a majority of the top runners in the world either train full-time at altitude or at least use it in cycles throughout the year. I know from my own experience that on the first couple of runs down from a training stint at altitude I feel like I have a “third lung.” I encourage everyone to give it a try at some point, but there are some things to be aware of when utilizing altitude training.

While my Dad and I loved taking first time altituders up Snow Summit (the ski resort just a mile away from our house in Big Bear Lake, CA [altitude 6,750 ft]) to test their will over a 1-mile stretch of road going straight up the ski slopes culminating in a double black diamond ski run, I don’t advise testing yourself on hills until after a week of acclimation. Hills always feel the hardest to me when I am first re-acclimating.

My second tip is hydration. It’s usually a lot drier at altitude, so staying on top of hydration becomes increasingly important. Many people suffer from headaches when they first go to altitude, but I think this has more to do with hydration than altitude.

My next tip is pacing. I am not opposed to getting straight into workouts during my first days back up at altitude, but I do adjust my effort level in the beginning of my workouts. Whereas at sea-level I can be very aggressive in the first few intervals or miles of a tempo run, at altitude, if I go out too hard it is very, very difficult to recover. I advise working into workouts and dialing back the intensity early on.

In terms of nutrition, I would suggest eating plenty of red meat and other iron-rich foods. Keeping iron levels high and avoiding anemia can be much more challenging at altitude, so Sara and I make sure to eat iron rich foods at least three times per week. Some of my favorite iron rich foods are: grits, red meat, and smoked clams.

I think perhaps the best tip I can give to help adjust for altitude is adjusting one’s mental outlook. Running at altitude is hard. It’s hard for me, it’s hard for people who were born at altitude and have lived at altitude their entire lives. Sure, it may be a little harder for an altitude newbee and it may take some people longer than others to fully adjust, but it’s hard for everyone. Don’t feel like you are experiencing anything different from anyone else when you find yourself out of breath at the top of stairs or taste blood (it’s not blood, I think its lactate) after a hard workout because we all feel it. Prepare yourself mentally that running will not feel the same as at sea level, but also be confident that running will never feel easier than when you return to sea level. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that running at altitude is not fun, because it is. The atmosphere of the mountains is every bit as performance-enhancing as the physical adaptations that take place over a 2-3 week stint at altitude (I recommend at least 2-3 weeks of altitude training to see lasting effects, and coming down to sea level in the last 7-10 days prior to a competition). Part of the fun of altitude training is the unique challenge that the mind and body are confronted with.

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