The air at high altitudes is much thinner than the air found at sea level and contains only a percentage of the oxygen. In order to receive an adequate amount of oxygen at high altitudes, humans must exert more energy, which often results in heavier breathing.
After a period of time, the body produces increased amounts of red blood cells to compensate for the lack of oxygen. This “natural blood doping” improves the athlete’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscle, increasing performance in athletes once they return to lower altitudes where oxygen is more plentiful.
Altitude training first gained credibility during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico when trainers noted a significant drop in performance amongst athletes across the board. The drop in performance was accredited to Mexico’s sharp increase in altitude at 7,349 feet. Since then, distance and speed runners alike have used altitude training as a means of increasing endurance and speed.
There is still some debate as to how to maximize benefits from altitude training. All athletes respond to the training differently, making it difficult to standardize it. Many trainers say that runners can see the benefits of altitude running in as soon as three to four days, with maximum benefits after about a month. The effects of training should be evident for the next 10-14 days afterward due to the increase in red blood cells.
For the best results, runners should taper their training, switching between high and low altitude runs. High altitude is most commonly defined as 8,000 feet or more above sea level. The “live high, train low” method of altitude training suggests that runners live at high altitudes to improve their blood oxygenation, then train at lower altitudes to maintain their speed. However, since few cities offer both, very few non-professional runners ever attempt this method.
High altitude running is not without its critics. Those who oppose the training method argue that the body’s natural tendency to slow down in higher altitudes could actually hinder a runner’s progress. Runners training at high altitudes are also more susceptible to dehydration and run the risk of developing altitude sickness, which can have severe side effects.
When running at high altitudes, allow for the body to become acclimated to the altitude before training. This usually requires around 24 hours. Remember to stay hydrated. The body is more susceptible to dehydration at higher elevations.
Be prepared mentally. Runners should know their limits when beginning training so as to avoid injury and illness. Lastly, avoid alcohol and caffeine while running. Both are considered diuretics and can affect the body’s natural functions.
Runners considering altitude training should educate themselves as thoroughly as possible before training for their next race in the mountains. Consulting a physical trainer can also help runners decide what type of training will best suit their fitness goals. The more a runner knows, the faster they’ll reach new heights in their running both physically and geographically.