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Altitude Training 101

How runners can optimize their time and training during a short-term trip to altitude

Jeff Gaudette

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For runners who don’t live in the Sierras, altitude training is a tactic normally associated with elite athletes looking for an edge. However, many runners may have the opportunity to train at altitude at some point in their running career. Maybe you happen to have a work conference scheduled somewhere other than at sea level, or you’re planning on taking your family vacation to the mountains to escape the oppressive summer heat—and get in some high-altitude runs. Whatever your reason for spending a brief amount of time in the thin, mountain air, how can you make the most of your time at altitude and not let it get the best of you?

Planning Your Trip To Altitude

While you may not have full control over how long you can stay at altitude, you might be able to adjust your travel plans for a day or two to take full advantage of the physiological adaptations or better prepare for your race.

What’s the minimum amount of time needed to see benefits?

Personally, I’ve seen spikes in EPO (Erythropoietin, a hormone that controls red blood cell production) production after just three to four days at altitude. Granted, they weren’t big increases, but the charts did show some movement. Therefore, you’ll need to stay at least three to four days to experience some movement in your blood profile. Understand that you won’t have stayed long enough to adjust to the altitude difference, but you’ll certainly have felt the effects.

Existing research points to seven to 10 days as being the “optimal” amount of time for a short altitude stint. So, if possible, schedule your family vacation to last at least one week at altitude. While you won’t receive the maximum blood boosting benefits of a full altitude training camp, you will see changes in your blood profile.

What’s the maximum amount of time before you plateau?

EPO production spikes and then levels off after 25 to 30 days of altitude exposure. Therefore, while you’ll still experience benefits if you stay at altitude for longer than 30 days, the altitude is no longer a stimulus that increases EPO production. To experience increased EPO production beyond 30 days, you need to again change the stimulus–either by going to a higher altitude or returning to sea level for a short duration.

Preparing For Altitude Training

To make the most of altitude training, it’s critical that your body be as prepared as possible for the metabolic demands and physiological changes that will occur.

1. Take an iron supplement

Red blood cell mass and oxygen demands increase at a higher altitudes. As such, you need to supplement your diet with iron before you arrive at altitude. Supplementing with iron before will not only help prevent altitude sickness, but it will maximize metabolic benefits such as increased red blood cell counts and EPO production. The guidelines for Olympic athletes training at altitude is to supplement with 120 to 130 mg of elemental iron per day, divided into 2 doses, taken with vitamin C. You should consult with your doctor to get an iron test if you’re thinking about iron supplementation.

2. Take an antioxidant

While most runners understand training at altitude will be made more difficult because of the thin air, many don’t realize that recovery from hard running at altitude is slowed because of an increased production of free radicals in the muscles. These free radicals contribute to fatigue and hamper recovery. To combat the effects of these free radicals, begin taking an antioxidant such as a multivitamin or Vitamin E before you head to the mountains and ward off as much free radical damage as you can.

3. Supplement with branch chain amino acids

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) increases at altitude, especially in the first couple of days, which means you’re actually burning more calories for the same amount of exercise. Meanwhile, appetite is suppressed by hypoxia, causing you to eat less because you’re not hungry. While this may sound great for those runners trying to lose weight, it’s detrimental to performance, especially when your body is already stressed. To minimize reduction in body mass and loss of muscle, make sure you’re eating enough and try supplementing with branched-chain amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine and valine. These amino acids help to build muscle mass and prevent further deterioration of lean muscle mass at high altitudes.

Altitude Training Tips

1. Don’t be afraid to run slow

When above 5,000 feet, you should (and may be forced to) slow your easy running pace. Don’t try to fight it or force your normal running pace. You may not feel the difference when you first start your run or when running on flat road, but it will catch up with you and make for an unpleasant second half of the run and defeat the purpose of running easy.

You’ll often find that when running at altitude even the smallest hill will send you gasping for breath. Don’t be concerned, this is a common experience. Take any hills very slow and don’t be afraid to walk at the top to catch your breath so your breathing and heart rate can return to normal.

2. Change your training

A. Take more rest between intervals

When training at altitude, try and increase exercise-recovery ratios as much as possible. Recent research indicates that a 1:2 recovery ratio is optimal. For example, if you run hard for 3 minutes, take 6 minutes recovery. At sea level, you can usually get away with a 1:1 ratio, or even a 2:1 ratio.

B. Slow your tempo runs down

Similar to running easy, running at threshold pace at altitude is extremely difficult and you will have to slow your pace considerably. Unfortunately, coaches and exercises scientists don’t have an exact ratio for how much your run will need to slow down to be effective. Each athlete responds to altitude differently and your exact elevation will impact your pace. Use your breathing or a heart-rate monitor to measure effort level and don’t be concerned about specific times.

3. Get more sleep

Recovering and sleeping at altitude are made more difficult by free radical damage and the thin air. Sleep specialists have found athletes who train at altitude imperceptibly wake almost five times as often as they do at sea level during the first three weeks. This prevents the body from getting into a deep sleep, which hampers recovery. So, give yourself some extra shut eye.

4. Drink extra fluids

Fluid intake is vital when training at altitude. The thin air makes your breathing more shallow and frequent, which creates greater fluid loss through the respiratory system. In addition, altitude locations are very dry with low humidity. Not only does this prevent absorption of fluid through breathing, but is also makes you feel like you’re not sweating heavily because the sweat is evaporating so quickly. Carry water with you at all times and aim to drink about twice as much as you normally do at sea level.

While you may not be an Olympic athlete who intends to utilize altitude training as part of a strict performance enhancing protocol, you can make good use of your time at altitude–planned or not.

Racing At Altitude

If you’re not from altitude, racing in the thin air can be very difficult. While you’ll certainly need to change your racing tactics and ensure you start a little slower than usual, you can use one of two approaches to acclimatize yourself as much as possible before the race.

The optimal race arrival time is as far before the race as possible–at least 10 days. This allows the body to somewhat adapt to the demands of altitude, begin to recover from the increased stress on your aerobic system, and provides you with a better feeling of the effort levels required to run certain paces.

Understandably, this strategy isn’t the most feasible for the everyday athlete. Therefore, the next best strategy is to arrive as close to race start time as possible, preferably within 18 to 47 hours. This arrival time allows you to avoid the most detrimental performance inhibitors of altitude typically experienced in the 48 hour to seven-day window.

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