Why it’s so much harder to train at higher altitudes if you’re not used to it

February 12, 2020 at 02:00AM by CWC


Altitude training is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps you’ve heard of the technique where elite athletes spend weeksif not monthstraining at high elevations to strengthen their athletic performance. As a casual runner, who spends most of my time in New York City, I’ve always envied athletes’ ability to spend time several thousand feet above sea level, pushing their race-day performance to the next level. So, when I found myself living part-time in Aspen, Colorado, where the elevation tops around 8,000 feet, I was ready to take full advantage of the terrain as I prepped for the Los Angeles marathon.

Training at high elevations is both physically taxing and mentally challenging, because there are many, many variables to consider: extreme weather conditions, freezing temperatures, altitude sickness, dehydration, and icy (if not rocky) terrain. Typically done at around a minimum of 2,400 meters (or 7,800 feet) above sea level, logging miles in altitude boosts oxygen-carrying red blood cells and has the ability to make you a stronger athlete in time.

Ready for day one as a “newbie” altitude trainee, I turn to Asics pro-runner Lyndsay Flanagan for some advice on how to perform at high elevations (she’s currently training in Boulder, Colorado at 5,328 feet). First up, Flanagan strongly suggests taking your time to acclimate accordingly. “When you first come up, you want to spend the first two to three weeks getting in mileage and gradually add in harder sessions. The biggest thing is to ease yourself into it,” says Flanagan. (It goes without saying that you should always check with your doctor to make sure something like this is a good idea for you before starting a training plan.)

For the next two months, I will train on a treadmill while supplementing run days with aggressive hikes, uphill skinning sessions, and weekend hikes up the Aspen Highland Bowl. This is the most unconventional marathon training plan I have ever executed, but I truly believe that training hard high up in the Colorado mountains will push me to become a stronger athlete, so that when I lace up my Asics Gel-Nimbus Sneakers ($150) on March 8 to run from the stadium to the sea in LA, I’ll be better prepared than ever. For the tips I’m following throughout my training, keep on scrolling.

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Table of Contents

1. Stay hydrated and fuel up

Altitude acclimatization is an adjustment that can test the limits and abilities of even the most elite athletes. You want to spend no less than a week training high up, while also watching your hydration very carefully (you need more water at altitude to prevent dehydration; aim for about a liter more per day than you’d usually drink while training at sea level). “Hydration is huge!” Flanagan says. Staying on top of your fluid intake is key, while ingesting a few extra healthy calories at each meal will help you stay fueled and strong for altitude adventures. In addition to eating well and drinking copious amounts of water, sleep and body care are just as vital.

2. Ease into it and keep your expectations in check

If you find yourself in high altitude and are jonesing for a run, gym session, or aggressive hike, make sure to ease into the activity. Flanagan suggests pulling back from all out effort to start. “It depends on the runner, but when you first show up stay at 70 to 75 percent of what you have been doing (in your training block) and gradually build over time,” she says. “It’s not a great idea to run your max volume from the start.” Your main mission on the mountaintop is to get miles under your belt, rather than PR.

3. Make sure to properly recover

Flanagan pays attention to rest just as much as the actual workout effort. “I find that I need a massage at least once a week and more sleep than I normally do. Maybe instead of eight hours I get at sea level, I’ll try to get nine or 10 hours of sleep at altitude.” This is because the toll that the altitude takes on your body is more intense than what you’re used to. But, by training properly and recovering well, you’ll be back on your feet and ready to tackle more miles on the way to your goal.

Altitude training isn’t the only way to get ready for race day. This 20 week marathon training plan can get any runner through their first race. And if you’re not sure about signing up for a marathon, new findings between running and heart health might make you rethink… 

Author Brooke Ely Danielson | Well and Good
Selected by CWC