Trying to run at higher elevations than what you’re used to can make it hard to breathe – a predicament, considering the very nature of running. We talked to Ben Hahn, president of The Mancos Project, which offers custom altitude training programs at their 2400m elevation in Colorado, US, and soon-to-open High Altitude Training Centre. Here’s what Hahn, a 14:14 5000m runner and 1:06:19 half-marathoner, has to say about the benefits of, challenges with, and ways to succeed in running at higher elevations.
Q: At what height elevation do you consider altitude… altitude?
A: I consider anything above 1400m altitude. Although, I believe that training at an altitude between 2000m and 2400m is ideal.
Q: What changes to the air, and to our bodies, at altitude?
A: Altitude training is possible because of the differences in atmospheric pressure between say, sea level and high-altitude destinations. At lower levels in elevation, air is more dense and there are more molecules of gas. In contrast, at altitude, the air is less dense and there are fewer gas molecules available.
Humans undergo a variety of physiological changes while living or training at altitude. For example, once at altitude the kidneys will produce EPO or erythropoietin, which in turn, will make the body produce more red blood cells. Altitude-trained athletes will develop a higher red blood cell volume count because of this adaptation to the new environment. This additional red blood cell volume helps in the transport of oxygen to the body. Some researchers also say that our bodies become more efficient in the transport of oxygen at altitude. Both of these examples are good adaptations for endurance athletes.
Q: If someone’s travelling to the mountains from a lower elevation to run, how much time do you consider adequate for acclimating?
A: Full acclimatisation would take a couple months. But, based off my own experience and others who have trained at 2400m, athletes seem to feel “normal” on training runs after about 10 days.
Q: How should someone acclimate?
A: We at the centre recommend adjusting gradually. This can be different for every person. We usually go by time when running, so a twenty-minute run the first day may only be a kilometre or two! Typically conditioned athletes will run every other day the first week, then most days the second week. We keep a very close eye on our athletes’ efforts and adjust according to individual needs.
Q: What are some other tips on acclimating?
A: Drink plenty of fluids. At altitude, you may not sweat as much or not think you are sweating, but you are losing a lot of fluids. It is very important to stay adequately hydrated.
Q: If someone travels to a run in the mountains (either from sea level to say, 1500m; or from 1500m to 2700m, for instance), and doesn’t have the extra days to acclimate, of what do they need to be careful?
A: The person who does not have a lot of time to adjust needs to be careful of their exertion levels. No hard running or climbing of mountains, etc. Basically, just take in the beautiful scenery and drink plenty of water!
Q: What are the signs they need to be aware of, and what should they do if they show those signs?
A: One worry is to keep an eye out for Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS. Signs of this resemble a hangover, flu symptoms, or a general malaise feeling. Also, you want to look out for someone with fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness.
If not treated, this can turn into pulmonary edema or even cerebral edema (swelling in the lungs or brain). Treatment for pulmonary and cerebral edema include descending immediately and even administering oxygen to the person.
Careful adjustment and acclimatisation can eliminate most peoples’ chances of AMS and related illnesses.
Q: Any special tips about recovering from a hard run at altitude?
A: Allow for plenty of rest… even more rest than normal. Good sleep patterns with at least nine to 10 hours of rest are advised and afternoon naps are good as well. Combining proper rest with good nutrition ensures a sufficient recovery.
Q: Can you talk about the benefits of training at high altitude?
A: The benefits of altitude training include increased red blood cell volume, increased efficiency, and, indirectly, more stamina on your runs. However, long periods of time at altitude may affect your speed. This is why many researchers are calling for a live-high, train-low approach. Or, you can do shorter training stints at altitude for the base phase of your training and then return back to lower elevations to develop your speed.