Preparing for running or racing at altitude

IMG_0840There are a growing number of races that are held at higher elevations – Vacation Races series of half marathons at National Parks around the USA are all in beautiful locations. This also means that each race is a hike up from sea level – Zion @ 3700‘, Grand Canyon @ 6600‘, Grand Teton @ 6300‘, Yellowstone @ 6700‘, Rocky Mountain @ 7500‘, Great Smoky @ 1000‘, Yosemite @ 7000‘ (and descends!), and Lake Powell @ 4300‘ – the Estes Park Marathon is also at 7500′, and takes place in June each year, with a variety of race distances for everyone in the family.

How to prepare before you arrive
You can take several simple precautions before you head to run or race at altitude that will help your body deal with the metabolic and physiological changes that happen at higher altitudes. Running at altitude is a wonderful training stimulus, and one that everyone can benefit from, not just elite athletes!

  1. Hydration – ensure that you arrive already hydrated, and maintain that status throughout your stay at altitude. Most environments at higher elevations tend to be dryer climates, so better to start fully hydrated rather than trying to play catch up. Increase your intake of water by a glass or two each day for 3-5 days ahead of arrival at race elevation.
  2. Iron supplement – oxygen demands increase at altitude, so taking an iron supplement can be a good way to help support the body and maximize the metabolic benefits of being at altitude. The guidelines for Olympic athletes training at altitude is to supplement with 120 to 130 mg of elemental iron per day, divided into 2 doses, taken with vitamin C. You should consult with your doctor to get an iron test if you’re considering iron supplementation.
  3. Increase calorie intake or supplement BCAA – your base metabolic rate increases at altitude, meaning you burn more calories for the same amount of exercise. At the same time, your appetite can be suppressed, so your calorie intake can be less, while demand has increased. Adding additional protein helps ensure that you don’t lose muscle mass. You can also consider taking a branch chain amino acid (BCAA) supplement such as leucine, isoleucine and valine. Make sure you test your reaction to any supplement by using it ahead of race day! Carbohydrate intake can also be increased a little to ensure that glycogen stores are kept at full pre-race. Add 5% to your carbohydrate intake for 5 days prior to arrival at altitude. That’s typically around 75 – 100 calories, or an additional banana or 2 pieces of whole wheat bread per day.
  4. Supplement Water soluble vitamins -Take daily amounts of water soluble vitamins (like C and B) to help your body cope with the stress of high altitude exercise. Make sure to follow recommendations for dosage amounts.
  5. Asea – This is a communication supplement. It is of particular benefit to athletes as it increases endurance capacity. Start taking Asea (it is a liquid supplement) before you come to altitude, and it will help to make your adjustment to altitude easier. I have been using the supplement myself since August 2009, and recommend it to all the athletes that I coach. See more information at this link –  Asea has received its athletic drug testing certifications – it has been declared clean and ok for competitive athletes to use without fear of containing any banned substances.
  6. Acli-Mate – is a unique and energizing acclimatization sport drink designed to aid in the prevention of altitude sickness AND assist mountain recreationalists and athletes in maximizing performance at elevation. The specific combination of natural ingredients including vitamins, minerals, herbs and electrolytes makes Acli-Mate® Mountain Sport Drink ideal for mountain visitors and athletes. Their Mountain formula comes in three delicious flavors: Elevation Orange™, Mountain Grape™ and Colorado Cran-Raspberry™. We recommend starting to use Acli-Mate® before arriving at altitude – see details at this link.

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What to do once you arrive
Here are some easy to follow suggestions for what to do once you have arrived at race or training elevation:

  1. Hydrate – Fluid intake is vital even when resting at altitude. The thin air makes your breathing more shallow and frequent, which creates greater fluid loss through the respiratory system. In addition, altitude locations are typically very dry, combined with low humidity. Not only does this prevent absorption of fluid through breathing, but is also makes you feel like you’re not sweating heavily because the sweat is evaporating so quickly. Believe me, you are still sweating! Carry water with you at all times and aim to drink about twice as much as you normally do at sea level.
  2. Sleep – Recovery and sleeping at altitude can be made more difficult by a combination of free radical damage and the thinner air. Sleep specialists have found athletes who train at altitude imperceptibly wake almost five times as often as they do at sea level during the first three weeks. This prevents the body from getting into a deep sleep, which hampers recovery. So, make sure to include as much opportunity as possible to sleep while you are at race altitude. Also make sure you are fully rested before you come to higher elevations, so any sleep disruption won’t have such a marker effect!
  3. Maintain caloric intake – make sure you keep glycogen and protein stores topped up while you are at race elevation. You may find that your appetite is suppressed, so follow the same guidelines as note 3 above for preparing for altitude.
  4. Throttle back – if you do have the opportunity to arrive several days early for a race at altitude, don’t be tempted to go out and run hard. Keep any exercise at low intensity – we recommend really easy short runs when you first arrive, even some easy hiking to help your body ease into the change in environment, and start the acclimation process. Hopefully you will be following a taper protocol as well, so keep that in mind too.

1948124_285779024913100_428782579_nHow to help mentally prepare
One of the key things you can do to help you prepare mentally for racing or running at altitude, is to to use the amazing powerful tool of visualization!
If you haven’t used visualization before as part of your training, this is a great opportunity to start. Here are the steps to creating a powerful visualization:

  • Relax – get yourself into a comfortable location where you won’t be disturbed for several minutes – turn the phone off or silence the ringer
  • Focus – a really useful way to start is to focus on your breathing – count breaths in groups of 10, each in and out breath counts as one
  • Create your visualization – our mind is incredibly creative, and we can use the opportunity to include every detail we need to make it as real as possible.
    Imagine yourself running in the race, notice everything around you, from the air temperature, to how clean the air is, the sounds and smells around you…
    Now notice how relaxed you are running, how your breathing feels comfortable, and how your pace is a little slower than your pace racing at home. Notice how the slower pace feels just fine, and how enjoyable it feels to be running at this altitude. Be aware of the beauty of the environment, and how good it feels to be there.

Keep using the visualization on a regular basis – we become what we think – if we give ourselves the opportunity to create thoughts that are supportive, enjoyable, relaxed, etc. then we are beginning to train our mind, in the same way that we train our body to race.
Watch our for news on a powerful tool that we will be introducing soon to help athletes with guided visualizations, or guided imagery…

Another tool you can use is to recall a previous time that you have been to altitude – if your experience was good, then revisit those memories, and recall what happened, and how you felt at that time. If your memory of the experience was not as good, then review what you did that made the experience that way, and plan to achieve a different outcome this time around.

IMG_1615Training Camps at Altitude
Another way to prepare for racing at altitude is to decide to participate in a training camp at altitude before your race. We hold training camps for women in May, July, and August / September that really help to develop confidence in running at altitude. Participants also are guided on runs, receive expert coaching and feedback on running form, training, nutrition, mental preparation, and much more….
There are also two co-ed trail running camps each year, in May and September.
You can see more details on all our camps at this link.
All of the camps are held in Estes Park, CO, based at 7,500 feet plus! Training at altitude is the best – we have a knack of connecting athletes to their running joy! Our camps have recently been receiving high praise in the media – Daily Burn featured our camps as one of the top 11 adult running camps in the USA, and Shape Magazine featured our women’s running camps as a once-in-a-lifetime fitness retreat for women! Come and find out what you have been missing!

12 thoughts on “Preparing for running or racing at altitude

  • What sort of training regiment would you suggest to a flatlander who would like to run their first 1/2 marathon at altitude? I literally train at sea level (Wisconsin) where my highest elevation rise is 1200 ft.

  • I’ve heard that a flat-lander should arrive to an altitude race either a week ahead (to acclimate) or the day before (so the altitude doesn’t set in); the middle is not good. Is that true?

    • Hi Ali, and apologies for missing your post and not replying before this.
      What you have heard is broadly accurate – you can see more details on timing for coming to a race at altitude at our post when to come to altitude
      Trust that helps, and enjoy your altitude race!
      Happy running, Terry

  • My son who is in the army at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, which is just under 5,000 in elevation, must run 2-mile course in under 16:36 and he is struggling to make that time. He will be at home for a few weeks at only 300′ so how would one compensate in terms of pace to achieve a 16 minute time (8 min per mile). We do have a cabin at 5800′ we can train at periodically, but not every day or week. Thanks for any suggestions.

    • Hi Craig – thanks for your note, and my apologies for the delay in response to you – I have been leading a women’s running camp and offline much of the time.
      This is a great question. Variance in pace is a personal response, so here is a guideline for you. Anticipate a reduction in pace of around 20-30 seconds per mile at the Fort compared to your home elevation. This will mean he will need to be able to run at a pace of 7.45-7.55 per mile.
      If you are able to have him spend some time running at higher altitude at your cabin, this will really help his confidence and enable him, and you, to see what his typical response to higher elevation will be. Once he has a memory of how running at the cabin feels, it will help him prepare for the course at the fort.
      Trust that helps, and wish your son good luck in completing the course successfully. Check out our new guided imagery app, https://www.activacuity.com/, that will also help him with preparing mentally. Happy running!

  • Hello Terry,

    I am doubting to take part in the Great Rift Valley Marathon in Mosoriot, Kenya. My first event was a 10 miles race (1’11”). In October, I will participate in the half marathon of Valencia. Do you think that the Great Rift Valley Marathon is realistic when I stick to your tips?

    • Hi Yacine, and many thanks for your note.
      I am just about to reply to your e-mail, so look out for an answer coming your way.
      Happy running, Terry

  • Hi there….

    I am from Wisconsin …the highest altitude I’ve run in is maybe 1000 ft (if that). I really want to sign up for the Grand Teton 1/2 but am nervous because of the altitude…do you have any suggestions on how to train or what will help me?? I would try to run the whole race but if I had to, I wouldn’t be ashamed to walk and take in the gorgeous views…any advice to help ease my mind??

    • Hi Emily
      Thanks for your note, and apologies for my slow reply. I am the Event Director for the US Trail Running Conference that took place last week / weekend, busy times!
      Being nervous about running at higher elevations is something that many runners experience. I encourage you to re-frame your perception of how running at Grand Teton will be. Instead of being nervous that you may not be able to run, focus instead on the wonderful opportunity and views that running at the race will give you. There is nothing to fear about running in the Tetons – check out our sister post here
      Prepare much as you would for any other race in terms of training – the advice on the post about preparing for running at altitude will also be helpful to you.
      During the race, focus on your breathing. Make sure that you run at the same intensity as you do for a long run at home, and that will be your guide. You can also use visualization techniques, seeing yourself running at Teton in a relaxed comfortable way, and practice that several times ahead of the race.
      Trust that helps – let me know if I can do anything further. Have a great race, and hope to meet you there!

  • Hello , I am a flatlander I guess lol from Oklahoma n Iam doing the rocky mt half in Colorado in August . The only thing I have to practice up is poteau mt it’s the worlds tallest hill . Will that be good enough for the elevation training ? Thought about using a mask they use in gyms . And this will be my 8 half . ( unless I do one before then 9 lol ) but never one at this altitude. So any advice would be great not gonna lie pretty nerves about this run .

    • Hi Chaney, and thanks for your note!
      Congrats on signing up for Rocky, a great choice of race….Poteau Mountain will help you build strength and endurance for Rocky, however it won’t help you to train specifically for the higher elevation in Estes Park. So best advice is to go ahead and train on Poteau and get your body in the best shape possible for Rocky.
      Then we have some advice on when to come to altitude, that may be helpful to you in terms of deciding when to arrive for the race. Check out http://activeataltitude.com/when-to-come-to-altitude/
      We will also be launching in May / June an app for iOS that will help you prepare mentally for Rocky, and get you in good shape before you arrive, confident in your abilities, and your aptitude for pacing, the toughest part of the challenge at higher elevations.
      Trust that helps – let me know if you need anything further from me. Happy running, Terry

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