Altitude Training for Runners
Written By: SportsShoes
The term high-altitude training refers to those training or competitions that are tackled in the mountains at altitudes above 1,524 m (5,000 ft). Training at high altitude can be an original way to turn your routine and monotonous runs around, or it can be best approached if you want to participate in races that are usually held at a high altitude, such as the ultra-distance trail race around Mont Blanc or the Ledro Skyrace . However, it is necessary to keep in mind that running at high altitude can be dangerous: it is important to respect the mountains and, above all, our own limits.
Here we will provide information and advice for athletes who want to start running at high altitude, but for any medical questions or concerns, and to make sure you are in the right condition for high-altitude training, we recommend that you consult your GP.
Why do athletes train at high altitude?
Regardless of whether they engage in running, cycling, triathlon or skiing, for most professional athletes hypoxic, or oxygen-deficient, training is regular in their training program. The reason they decide to engage in this training is only one, but extremely important: to achieve optimal performance over an extended period of time, which leads to the ability to run longer at a high speed.
Running at high altitude: How and where to start?
The most important thing is to start by training at low altitude and gradually increase the altitude so that the body has a chance to get used to the elevation difference. Most athletes make exactly the same mistake when they get to high altitude: they train too hard, too intensely and, most importantly, too soon. Not respecting the stages and not allowing the body to get used to the lack of oxygen could result in what is called mountain sickness: the symptoms are headache, fatigue, dizziness, lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting, and in more severe cases it can cause pulmonary embolism.
High altitude training should always be practised under the guidance of experienced doctors and instructors. The duration of training, for runners who are able to stay in the mountains, depends very much on the athlete's physical fitness and their athletic goals: it is recommended to train in the mountains for about 3 weeks, starting first with walks and then gradually getting into running. The first few days it is advisable to do light jogs, at 20% or maximum 30% of the intensity at which you usually run at sea level. Best results are achieved by running about 5 hours per week. This is of course a simple guideline: altitudes vary, and likewise workouts must adapt, so it will be your coach or doctor who will suggest the best training.
Photo credit: Brian Erickson on Unsplash
I don't have the opportunity to run in the mountains, so how can I simulate high-altitude training?
Of course, running and training directly in the mountains is a unique experience, but not everyone is able to do it due to family and work commitments. Fortunately, nowadays there are many technologies available that can simulate running in the high altitude, so everyone can attempt this form of training.
- High altitude training classes: experience the benefits of training at high altitude by participating in specialised classes with other runners. There are special facilities designed to reduce air thinness and simulate the oxygen deficiency of high mountain altitude.
- Interval training on hills: although hills do not reach the heights of mountains, they are excellent terrain on which to run to increase endurance (regardless of whether they are real hills or a treadmill on which to increase incline).
- Breathing exercises: among the many breathing exercises from which runners can benefit, one of the most common is what is known as square or box breathing. This exercise focuses on steps and breathing: beginners can try breathing in for two steps, then breathing out for the next two steps. As you become more familiar with the pace, practice with three or four steps.
- Elevation training mask: these masks strain your breathing during workouts aiming to simulate the oxygen deprivation you experience in the mountains. As a result, you will have to increase your breathing rate to ensure sufficient oxygen supply to the lungs. This trains the respiratory muscles and improves maximum oxygen consumption capacity.
Photo credit: an elevation mask for training. Source: Oxygen Advantage
Hydration: how important is it to help oxygenation?
During any workout, hydration is critical. It is recommended to drink heavily during high-altitude training or simulated high-altitude workouts so that the body can adapt more quickly to the new altitude and recover better at the end of the run. Also, because of the lower water vapour pressure, running at high altitude results in increased fluid loss. In such cases, the mucous membranes tend to dry out, so the air you breathe requires more humidification, not to mention the fact that the air in the mountains is drier.
To stay hydrated but comfortable and without bulk, and to avoid carrying heavy water bottles, we recommend purchasing hydration vests.
How does running at high altitude affect the body?
Due to the reduced air pressure, oxygen levels drop from an altitude of 2,000 m, so your performance will seem reduced compared to usual. Luckily, however, your body activates a number of fascinating adaptive mechanisms. The following points will provide a general idea of what happens to your body when you train at high altitude.
- Improved oxygen transport: due to oxygen deficiency, the kidneys increase production of erythropoietin or EPO, a hormone that in turn produces red blood cells and haemoglobin, the molecule involved in oxygen transport. This will greatly improve your sports performance! In fact, in competitive sports, synthesised EPO is considered a doping substance and is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Therefore, the best solution is to produce it naturally!
- Increased capillary density: it improves blood circulation.
- Reduction in the buffering capacity of the blood: a seemingly negative effect which can result in something positive. In a few words, in the presence of anaerobic exertion, the blood tends to increase its acidity level more rapidly, and this manifests itself as fatigue. The good news is that some studies have shown that, when exposed to more fatigue under oxygen deficiency, the buffering capacity of the blood improves, which is why many athletes experience an increase in endurance after training at high altitude.
Photo credit: running in mountain. Source: World Athletic.
When does a high altitude become excessive and/or harmful?
It depends on an athlete's goals: high altitude training is practised between 1900 and 2500 m above sea level. At higher altitudes, the negative effects of lower air pressure in fact outweigh the positive effects in terms of performance, and it is not worth the effort. Because training at high altitudes has not been proven to result in long-term improvements, it is advisable to practise it only in preparation for competitions, whether you are an expert or a beginner. If, on the other hand, you engage in endurance sports only as a hobby, there is no need to train at high altitude. However, if you are planning a hike in the mountains, it might be helpful for you to do some exercise at high altitude to accustom your body to oxygen deficiency.
Photo credit: mountain runner with mountain sickness. Source Altitude Himalaya.
What is the best kit to wear for running at high altitude?
Temperature variation is one of the problems that every athlete faces when running in the mountains. It is often cold at night and quite warm during the day. The body needs time to get used to these climatic swings. To overcome this problem, the best solution is to dress with layers.
As a top layer, we recommend a full-zip jacket that can be easily and quickly removed when temperatures increase. Click here to discover the full range of full-zip jackets.
If it's particularly cold, you can wear our lightweight, breathable long-sleeved tops under your jacket to run comfortably without being bothered by sweat. Check out the entire collection here.
In the case of daytime runs in high temperatures, you can take a look at the short-sleeved t-shirts, with prints and colours for running comfortably and in style. Check out the full range of t-shirts here.
Shoes are essential for running at your best: we recommend lightweight but durable hiking and trail running shoes or boots with a sole that has aggressive lugs that dig into the ground to stay well grounded on uneven mountain trails. Check out the full range of hiking shoes and boots here.
Also, sunscreen is crucial if you want to train at high altitude! The increased intensity of ultraviolet rays combined with physical fatigue can get you sunburned in no time! We recommend buying a pair of sunglasses with polarised lenses to protect your eyes from UV rays, sunscreen, and some clothing/accessories with built-in sun protection.