Our Ambassador Tara shares her experience and knowledge on training for and at altitude!
Hello fellow runners! I live in Colorado, where the majority of the elevation is 5000ft (~1500m) or higher. I love having family and friends visit me and taking them on breathtaking trails around the state, but most of my friends come from lower elevations. I wanted to share with you some of the information and advice I’ve given people that come from lower elevations, as well as some of my own experiences with the thinner air and how to feel your best! I’ve been on many high mountains, my highest being Kilimanjaro at 19,300ft/5880m.
First, it helps to know the science behind why you breathe harder and might even feel sick at higher altitude. The higher you are, the less oxygen particles there are in the air you’re breathing because there’s less atmospheric pressure, so you have to breathe harder to get the same amount of oxygen you’re used to getting at lower elevations. Even if you’re in super amazing shape, you probably will have to breathe a little harder because your body will need to push more oxygen through your blood to compensate until it gets used to it. The more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen your blood can carry to your muscles. So don’t get discouraged if you can run 10 miles at sea level, but step off a plane at elevation and breathe hard just going up a small flight of stairs! Everyone’s body will respond a little bit differently to altitude, and while being in shape helps, sometimes your body’s reaction to high elevation is more about your body chemistry and physiology than your athleticism. There’s professional football players that still get sick at higher elevations.
So, if you’ve never been to altitude before (or have and didn’t handle it very well), here’s some tips to help your body feel better and adjust faster. While actually building more red blood cells in your body can take a month or more, you can at least help your body out while it’s trying to adjust! The first thing you’ll probably notice is that you’re more tired. When I first visited elevation, I was in bed before 8pm the first few nights. The two best things you can do is to get lots of sleep, and drink LOTS of water. Water is a miracle substance, I swear it’s the answer to almost every ailment! Aim to at least double your water intake; the higher your blood volume, the less likely you’ll be to get a headache or feel sick. When you have to breathe at a faster rate, you dehydrate quicker, which is why increasing your water intake helps counteract dehydration when you get higher in altitude.
Most people that are affected by altitude will experience nausea and headaches. I was lucky and never had those issues, even on Kili. In extreme elevations, your lungs might accumulate extra fluid (pulmonary edema) and you might develop a little bit of a cough. I’ve noticed that on a long, strenuous day in the high mountains I can get a little bit of a fluid cough, but it has never been serious and goes away by the evening when I’m home and lower. When I climbed above 15,000ft/4500m on Kilimanjaro, I could only make my body go so fast, despite how hard I tried. It felt like trying to breathe through a straw; I felt like I might have an idea what it feels like to have asthma — where I just couldn’t get in a nice deep breath. Granted not a lot of you are going to elevations that high every day, but even just going from sea level to the mountains, your heart will have to beat faster, so don’t over do it. Slow down a little so that you get to a place where you can control your breathing and take nice and deep slow breaths. Instead of doing quick bursts and then having to stop to catch my breath, I’ve found it worked better for me to just slow it down so that I was still able to at least keep walking or running at a slower pace where I could manage my heart rate and breathing better and not have to stop and take breaks all the time.
Another reminder: you are closer to the sun and will get sunburned a lot easier. Don’t forget sunscreen! Even if it’s overcast, UVB rays are still getting through and can burn you. Be careful with your water bottles and toiletries, the difference in atmospheric pressure causes the air particles to expand in your bottles and can explode on you a little bit. When I’m hiking and running and starting from a lower point and climbing up quickly, I try to remember to open the lids on my bottles from time to time to let the air escape, even if I don’t need a drink. That way the pressure doesn’t get too high and pop my lids off on me!
If you have a race or a trip to higher elevation than you’re used to, the earlier you can get there to adjust, the better. Like I said, it’ll take many many weeks to actually increase your red blood cell count, but most people can at least get used to the altitude in a few days to a week. To help your body start producing those RBCs, try to “climb high, sleep low” if you can. Take a drive or a hike to an elevation that’s higher than where you’ll be sleeping. If you can, eat more foods to help your body out with iron and B12 levels, like meat, eggs, leafy greens (like kale and spinach), lentils, legumes and beans. Depending on your body and how high you’re getting to, there are prescriptions a doctor can give you to help you with altitude adjustment. They make you go to the bathroom more often to encourage you to keep hydrated and help dilate your blood vessels to increase blood flow and circulation. If the altitude ever gets to be too much for you, listen to your body and get yourself to lower elevation. If you get really sick from it, get down as much and as fast as you can.
For those of you that live at altitude already, the interesting thing is that even though it takes your body a while to create more red blood cells, when you go from high altitude to low altitude, your body gets rid of the excess RBCs a lot faster than it does to make them! In as little as a week or two, you can lose it all. So, if you have a race at sea level, getting there early doesn’t help you out. Another misconception is that simply living at altitude gives you an advantage and makes you stronger. That’s not necessarily true; here’s where your cardiovascular strength really does count! When I went to visit Florida, I thought I would be completely fine running a longer distance since I was coming from higher elevation. The truth was, I couldn’t suddenly run further or faster than normal. My cardiovascular endurance was still the same as it was at higher elevations, I was just able to catch my breath a lot quicker (thanks to the extra RBCs I had), and I was able to recover faster. If you don’t have the endurance to run x-number of miles at elevation, you probably won’t suddenly be able to just by going down to sea level!
Altitude is a funny game, and you’ll never know how you’ll react until you get there and see how your body responds! Some people hardly notice anything and feel completely fine, others get to a city like Denver and notice it right away. Don’t feel bad if you have more side effects than someone else! It’s not entirely about your current fitness level, although having a good strong cardio base definitely helps since your heart has to work a little harder. Be patient, get plenty of rest, drink lots of water, and take it slow until you know how you feel!