There are many reasons why athletes love to run and train at higher altitudes. As well as the challenge of pushing your body and fitness to the limit, the higher levels condition your system uniquely. Plus there’s the simple pleasure of exercising alone in the wilderness, taking in the tremendous views on offer at such heights and exploring trails and paths.
But working your body in this way should not be taken lightly. Make sure you’re up for it and follow these following tips.
Whether you’re planning to train at altitude for a specific event, or simply find yourself staying above sea level and wish to exercise, you’ll need to be in good shape. Going from couch potato to full-on altitude trail runner is really not a good idea. You will need to be in regular training, with your body used to running distance.
It’s also a good idea to try as much off-road running as possible; most trails at high altitude aren’t paved and you’ll need to be used to running on a variety of surfaces. It might also help to have some basic orienteering and navigational skills. And don’t just pack your trainers and Speedos. Take clothing appropriate to all weather conditions including hats and gloves you are comfortable running in.
HOW IT WORKS
As the altitude rises above sea level, the oxygen pressure level drops. This limits the amount of oxygen available to your body, impairing the amount reaching your working muscles. This causes your heart to pump much harder, trying to get as much fuel as possible to your aching limbs. Eventually your body will acclimate to the conditions and produce more red blood cells and proteins such as erythropoietin to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Your body will actually change the way it uses its natural ‘fuels’ relying more on fatty acids for power.
Start off slow when at altitude. Spend a day not exercising at all and allowing your body to adjust. And when you do start to run, take it at a slower pace at first. Your breathing will feel different, as it attempts to get more precious oxygen inside you. Try to keep your pace and your breathing as regular as possible. If you find yourself finding it hard to breathe, or your lungs hurt, stop for a while or walk for a period, especially on high-grade slopes. With your body working much harder, inside and out, you’ll reach anaerobic training levels much more quickly. If you attempt to exercise before proper acclimatisation, you could suffer from Acute Mountain Sickness, which is very nasty.
Dehydration occurs naturally when you work out at these levels, so make sure you’re taking on plenty of H2O. The higher altitude often feels cooler and can be deceiving. You’ll be losing a large amount of moisture from your body, so ensure you replace it. Always have water with you on any run and avoid caffeine and alcohol. If you show any signs of dehydration: light-headedness, headaches, problems breathing, stop and take on fluids immediately.
It might feel cooler when you’re high up, but the sun is much more powerful. Prepare for this by wearing plenty of sunscreen and keeping yourself covered if possible. Also, carbs are your friend when you undertake this kind of training. Eating foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates can help you avoid fatigue and muscle pain. Get plenty of rest between runs, with naps and long periods of rest a necessity, as the altitude can affect your sleep patterns. And if it all feels too much for you, slow down your regimen and try other forms of light exercise. Of course, if you suffer from any continual symptoms of distress, get medical advice immediately.
COMING BACK TO EARTH
Once you return from high altitude training, wait a few days before returning to full time running. Allow your body some time to adjust, it needs to re-establish it’s blood-acidity and electrolyte levels. If possible, spend some time at a mid-range level. For instance, if you have been training at 7000 feet, take it down to 4000 feet for a period before a full descent.