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Running Tips

Running at altitude: Everything you need to know

Two runners going downhill with peaks in the distance
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DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE

The content in this post is intended for informational or general educational purposes only and it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, fitness or healthcare routines.

There are plenty of ways to shake up your running routine, from trying a new route to taking a run-cation. A great way to take your endurance training to the next level is altitude training.

Running at high altitudes (over 5,000 ft above sea level) is common practice among elite athletes.

However, running at high altitude isn’t just for the pros. Runners of all abilities can benefit from some time spent above sea level.

Two runners on an empty street surrounded by mountains and trees

The benefits of running at high altitude

While altitude training may seem daunting, several studies indicate that — with proper precautions — you can stay safe, have fun, and become a better runner.

Increased oxygen flow to muscles

According to Dr Ben Levine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, in high-altitude environments, you take in less oxygen with each breath compared to lower altitudes. This pushes your body to make more red blood cells to deliver oxygen to hard-working muscles.

When you return to lower altitude or sea level, your body keeps those extra blood cells, giving your performance a natural “boost.”

Increased aerobic capacity

A 2020 study found that after an 11-day training programme at high altitude, a group of runners observed a 13.6% increase in their VO2 max.

Similar to the way altitude training affects oxygen flow to your muscles, the increased blood cell count allows your body to take in more oxygen with each breath, which could boost your performance at lower altitudes.

Close up view of a woman running on a trail

Before you go...

As always, it’s important to listen to your body. Talk to your doctor and come up with a plan before you set off on your adventure. And learn the signs of altitude sickness so you can take action if you become sick.

SIGNS OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS

Dizziness
Fatigue or loss of energy
Chest tightness
Severe headache, nausea or vomiting
Coordination problems

If you or anyone with you experiences these symptoms, seek medical assistance immediately.

How to simulate altitude training

It’s hard to beat a mountain getaway, but between the demands of our day-to-day lives and travel time, training at elevation isn’t an option for everyone.

Thankfully, there are some high-tech and easy-to-find options that will allow your body to reap the benefits of altitude training, without the plane ride.

Altitude training classes

Enjoy the benefits of altitude training with the company of friends in an altitude training class. Specialised facilities are designed to decrease the percentage of oxygen available in the room, simulating the air at high altitudes.

Interval hill training

Intervals and hills? Hear us out.

Whether you find a hill in your area or amp up the elevation on your treadmill, running uphill followed by a walk back down (or a walking recovery at zero elevation) can do wonders for your cardiovascular health and improve your endurance.

The best part about interval training is that you can change the difficulty level. If you are just getting into running, take a shorter running interval and longer recovery. As your endurance improves, adjust to longer running intervals with shorter recovery to challenge your body. If you want to add some extra spice to your workout, take on steeper hills as you improve.

Sideview of man running on a treadmill

Try breathing exercises

There are a variety of breathing exercises for runners, one of the most common is called square breathing.

Square breathing focuses on aligning your stride and breath. Beginners should try inhaling for two strides then exhaling for two strides. As you get more comfortable with rhythm, try moving up to three or four strides.

If you feel confident, take your square breathing to the next level by inhaling for two strides, holding for two strides, exhaling for two, then holding for two.

Breathing exercises can help you focus during hard workouts, and they can even reduce the work of breathing and minimise fatigue during runs.

Tips for running at high altitude

Before you embark on your high-altitude running adventure, here are four tips to help you stay safe and enjoy this new chapter of your run:

  1. Take your time – Allow yourself to ease into your new training conditions. Take plenty of time (about two weeks) to adjust to the new altitude. Consider beginning with long walks and working up to a run when you first arrive at altitude to prevent overexertion.
  2. Slow your pace – Keep a close eye on your pace and listen to your body. Start out running slower than you normally would at lower altitudes until you get a feel for the impact that high-altitude training has on your body.
  3. Stay hydrated – Drink plenty of water to fuel your body as it adjusts to a new altitude. This will help you adapt faster and recover better. As always, pair your hydration with nutritious meals to provide your body with everything it needs to run its best.
  4. Dress in layers – It gets chilly up there in the mountains! Layers are your friend as you warm up (pun intended) to a new altitude.
A woman trail running in the mountains

Whether you take a trip to the mountains or create your own altitude training at home, there are plenty of benefits to be had from running at high altitude. Maintain safe practices and build a plan so you can get the most out of your altitude training experience.

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