Running and racing at altitude

Runner On SummitTraining or racing at altitude used to be something that was only for elite athletes. That has now thankfully changed, with an increasing number of trail, ultra and road races taking place at higher elevations, as well as training camps and running vacations based at a variety of locations at higher altitude.

Altitude training, and racing, really became a major force in endurance running building up to the 1968 Mexico Olympics. This was the first, and to date, the only Summer Olympics to be held at high elevation – Mexico City is at 7, 350 feet, or 2,240 m, above sea level.  The slower than usual performances in endurance events at the Mexico Olympics inspired investigation into altitude training – coincidentally, many new records were set in shorter, anaerobic, sprint events, like the 100m, and long jump – Bob Beamon’s long jump record from Mexico stood for 23 years!

Once athletes and coaches understood that training at higher altitudes gave a number of benefits for endurance athletes, it became an extremely popular part of training regimens for athletes from all over the World. Currently, pretty close to 100% of athletes in endurance events  have included altitude training as part of their build up to a race or event. To see more details on the physiological benefits of training at altitude, see our webpage here.

Listening to elite athletes talk about running at higher elevations, the typical words you will hear are “hard,” or “tough.” This does give the impression that running or racing at higher elevations is harder than running at lower altitudes. Actually, I believe the wrong focus is being applied – running or racing at altitude should be described as “breathtaking,” or “stunning,” or “incredible.” From my experience of training athletes since May 2007 in Estes Park, Colorado, at a starting elevation of 7,522 feet above sea level, once we get athletes settled into allowing themselves to run at a slower pace than they can at home, their attention is completely taken with the amazing scenery, the clean clear air, the majestic mountains, and the wildlife that seems to be around the next corner of every trail we take them on….

Let me backtrack a little – running at any elevation can be hard, if we’re attempting to run at a pace faster than the combination of environment and training status allows us to maintain. Simply, if we are racing a hilly course at sea level, and we then attempt to maintain the same kind of pace that we have been used to on flat training runs, that race is going to seem “hard.” It’s exactly the same at higher elevations – you have to run slower at altitude because the amount of available oxygen is reduced. I have yet to meet anyone that can run at the same pace here in Colorado as they can at home, wherever that may be! When I do, I will become their coach and manager and be world famous! Everyone has to slow down at altitude compared to running at lower elevations – many people let their egos get in the way, make life harder than it needs to be, and suffer as a result.

IMG_1926My first real run at altitude in Colorado took place in the Fall of 2005. We were staying at a ski resort called Winter Park, at 9,000 feet – having come come from a low lying village in the UK near Bath, I had jumped 9,000 feet in elevation! I decided to take the first 2 days easy, just hiking and walking around. Then on Day 3, I laced up my shoes, and headed out of the door running! I started with a steady flat section of road, and I recall wondering what the fuss was about, as I cruised easily along feeling much like I did at home. Then I reached a hill, and ran up it exactly as if I was still at 0 feet back in England.  At the top of the climb, I had to stop, drawing large lungfuls of air that had me on the verge of gasping…suddenly, a light came on, and I realized what had happened. Running at altitude isn’t hard – what is hard is coming to terms with the reality that I had to run at a slower pace. The difficulty is we are runners – our egos are based around our running, and we will come up with all kinds of reasons why we ran slower!

When I work with newly arrived athletes at our training camps here in Estes Park, I always encourage them to forget about pace and fragile egos, and instead to focus on perceived effort. If we’re going for an easy run, then recall what your perceived effort level was for that run at home, and match that at altitude. Your pace will be slower, your effort will be similar. You apply the same technique to racing as well, using perceived effort level, so that you race at the same effort level as if you were at home. It’s actually a really easy ability to master, especially with the use of powerful visualization techniques.

Once we get athletes focused in the right way, they have an absolute blast! They get to run in some of the most beautiful training terrain in the World, conquer mountain climbs, breathe clean, clear air, and get to places they had only ever dreamed of! So, thinking of running a race at altitude? My recommendation is…do it! Everyone can run at higher elevations, just be respectful of the slower pace, and you will be fine! There are a number of things that you can to help prepare for a race at altitude – more of that later. In the meantime back to races…Each of the 2015 Vacation Races are run at elevations of 1,200 feet upwards. Here are the race stats:

  • Zion Half – max elevation 3,900 feet
  • Grand Canyon Half – max elevation 6,700 feet
  • Grand Teton half – max elevation 6,300 feet
  • Yellowstone Half – max elevation 7,000 feet
  • Rocky Mountain Half – max elevation 7,900 feet
  • Yosemite Half – max elevation 2,000 feet +
  • Great Smoky Mountains Half – max elevation 1,200 feet
  • Lake Powell Half – max elevation 4,300 feet

So, most of these races are around 4,000 feet or higher, with Rocky Mountain Half being the highest! Each race is located at a beautiful part of the USA, and not only do you get to run there, you can also relax and enjoy the terrain and amazing scenery before and after the race. The only thing that should stop you from taking part in any, or all, of these races, is whether you can get time off to go and run….altitude, not a problem, it’s a benefit!

Ok – so you’ve made the decision to go and race at one of the amazing Vacation Races. Good for you – let’s now look at how you can help make the most of your time at race elevation. Thankfully, there are a number of steps you can take that will help you both physically and mentally prepare for one of these races. See our post on how to prepare for coming to race or train at altitude

Estes Park is also home to one of the premier mountain marathons in the USA! The Estes Park Marathon takes place in June each year, and has a race for everyone in the family! Saturday is KIDS FUN RUN!, and Sunday features a 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, and marathon team relay.

46 thoughts on “Running and racing at altitude

  • Altitude adjustment: I will be running Grand Teton and Yellowstone races in June. I now live in Raleigh, North Carolina. How many days should i allocate to arrive to Grand Teton before the race? Thank you, Edna Kaufman

    • Hi Edna, and thanks for your note.
      Ideally, the longer time you can spend to acclimate the better. If you are able to arrive for Grand Teton three or more days before race day, then you will start to acclimate and benefit from that initial process. Otherwise, arrive as close as possible to race day.
      Trust that helps – hope to see you at both races – we encourage you to come to our race preparation workshops! Happy training!

      • Hi Terry. I’m curious about your comment regarding arriving before the race for altitude acclimation. I live in Chicago and am considering the Grand Teton Half Marathon. You said either 3 or more days ahead of time or as close to the race as possible. Unfortunately I can’t get there 3 or more days early because of work. So would you recommend Thursday night? I’d prefer not to wait until Friday just so I can have a day to feel settled. I could get there Wednesday night, but that’s 2 full days ahead and doesn’t seem to fit either of your suggestions! I really appreciate your thoughts. I’m nervous about the distance, but almost more so about the possible altitude issues.

        • Hi Krista
          Thanks for your note, and great question! The response to altitude is very personal, so the recommendations are generic guidelines. Thursday night, in my opinion, would be better than Wednesday night.
          No need to be nervous about altitude, you will be just fine, and the incredible mountain views will you enjoy the journey!
          Consider registering for the positive grand teton race workshop on the Friday morning – we will talk about how to focus on the positives on your running and preparation, as well as race strategy, how to deal with nerves, etc..
          Check out https://events.hakuapp.com/2016-grand-teton – also recommend our other post on preparing for altitude .
          Wish you success with your training, and look forward to meeting you in Jackson!
          Terry

        • I ran the Whiskey Row in Prescott half marathon without any preparations for altitude and was able to finish it in 2:04 which is within my regular time on flat.

          It takes about 3 days to acclimate to altitude but you can help out doing hot yoga. Heat is the new altitude and seemed to have worked for me.

          Good luck.

  • I am running the Grand Teton half in June. I currently live in West Virginia. Do you feel an elevation training mask would be beneficial to incorporate into my training program?

    • Hi Sarah, and thanks for your question.
      I personally have not used an elevation training mask, so can’t speak to their efficacy for you. I have heard of good results from athletes using them, although i have also heard of practical issues with them as well. A good friend in Boulder has an altitude tent that he sleeps in that can simulate higher altitude air conditions, and has been proved to be very effective. They are a little expensive tho! We have two camps in May here that would be an even better investment in your training.
      Let me know if I can help further! Wish you success, and look forward to seeing you for the Grand Teton race!

  • Hiya!
    I am going to be doing the Rocky Mountain half in August which i am looking forward to knowing that i have my work cut out as arrive the 29th july from Scotland so only have a couple of days to adjust. Please could you advise me on the best way to train for this ultimate experince have been running 20yrs. Thankyou for your time have a good day.

    • Hi Catherine – thanks for your note, and apologies for my slow reply to you. The best way to train is to arrive in Colorado having trained effectively, to have tapered fully, and to be rested and hydrated. You may find a post that we have just published helpful with tips on actions you can take before you arrive here – check http://activeataltitude.com/aaabeta/preparing-for-running-or-racing-at-altitude/.
      Responses to running at higher elevations is very individual – we have had Olympic level athletes that have slowed comparatively more than slower runners here. Fitness level can help you, but isn’t necessarily a guide for how you will respond.
      The best advice is to gauge your racing effort here in Estes Park based on the same effort level when you race at home. Think of your breathing, and breathe at the same intensity for Rocky as you would at home – your pace will be slower, while the effort level remains the same.
      Consider coming to the exclusive race preparation workshop on Friday July 31st – you will find it really helpful to help you achieve your best race experience at Rocky! Trust that helps – let me know if you have any more questions.

  • So, if I’m at 11:30-12:00/mi race pace for a half at sea level, what pace should I conceivably slow down to in order to enjoy the scenery, not feel like I’m going to die at altitude, and still finish on time?

    • Hi Evan, and thanks for your note. Apologies also to you for the slower than usual reply.
      Take the focus off your pace, and instead focus on your breathing. We recommend racing Rocky at the same effort or intensity level that you use at sea level.
      Think of your breathing, and breathe at the same intensity for Rocky as you would at home – your pace will be slower, while the effort level remains the same.
      The amount of reduction in pace per mile is an individual response – expect to be somewhere around 30-40 seconds per mile slower here than at sea level.
      You may also find a post that we have just published helpful with tips on actions you can take before you arrive here – check http://activeataltitude.com/aaabeta/preparing-for-running-or-racing-at-altitude/.
      Consider coming to the exclusive race preparation workshop on Friday July 31st – you will find it really helpful to help you achieve your best race experience at Rocky, and to help you create a visualization for your race that will really help you focus on the positive! Trust that helps – let me know if you have any more questions, and look forward to seeing you at Rocky!

  • I have to tell you reading your advice makes me feel like “This is POSSIBLE”. Thanks for the advice, I will stay tuned for more training tips. I am visiting Estes Park about a month before the half (for a week). Any advice for my training runs while I am in Estes? (Also I was so happy to hear about cup free runs – that is awesome! — She is just too beautiful to be littered with tons of little white cups!)

    • Hi Lynn and thanks for your note. Best advice for your week is to take an easy hike first day, a 30 minute easy run day 2, easy, longer hike day 3, then run every day increasing duration gradually. Everything exercise wise needs to be at an easy pace until day 6, when you can include 30 mins at the same intensity as you would race at home elevation. Note that this will be different from race pace at home. Focus on your breathing, and forget about pace; use your breathing as a guide for how hard to run. Coming up before the race is a great plan as you will have an opportunity to see how your body reacts to the higher elevation, and help build your confidence!
      See our post on preparing to come to altitude as well…Have fun training – consider registering for our race preparation workshop on the Friday morning before Rocky race day!
      Great comment on cups, and very happy that Vacation Races decided to go cupless! Look forward to seeing you in Estes!

      • Thanks for the advice for training during my visit. Also, one of your replies to a comment on this post made me curious. If I understood your response concerning how earlier to arrive before Grand Teton race you indicated arrive 3 or more days before the race or as close to race as possible. Why the “as close as possible to race day part”? Currently, my plan is to arrive Wed noon before the Sat race. Thanks again. And I do plan on attending Workshop — I think some strategies for that 3+ mile incline starting around mile 5 are essential! 8D Thanks again!

        • Hi Lynn – the “as close as possible to race day part” is so that your body has as little time as possible to begin the acclimation process. Most runners feel pretty good for the first 24 hours or so – then the next stage of acclimation takes place over three days. Our most recent post, when to come to altitude, may be helpful to you.
          Glad to hear that you plan on attending the workshop – that incline is a good one to get your head around before you race it – have tons of good advice for you on how to achieve that, and much more! Wish you success with your training Lynn.

  • I have been trying to get into one of these races this year. Working in the schools has made it almost impossible. Now I can do this race, I hope, and I will be coming from hot and humid Pennsylvania. I have had asthma issues in the past, but finished my first full marathon last October without the use of any medication. My question is, I will probably arrive two days before just because I am sure I can’t afford 3 days in a hotel. I really want to do this and I hope you will tell me I should be fine. Thank you for your time.

    • Hi Leslie – thanks for your note, and thrilled you can make it for one of these races! Which one do you plan to run? Congratulations on running your first full marathon, and good to hear that you were able to complete it without the use of medication! Great news…
      I would be tempted to arrive the day before race day if that’s possible for you – two days before doesn’t give you any benefit in terms of acclimation, so you could save on one night’s hotel bill! You should be fine, although the response to higher elevations is very individual. The key factor to remember for the race is to focus on your breathing, not your pace. Think of how your breathing is for a long run at home in Pennsylvania – in the race, use the same intensity of breathing as your guide, and don’t let your breathing get harder than that level. That way you will be running at the same kind of intensity as you normally do at home, and so get to enjoy your race experience! Trust that helps…also check out our later post on some ways to help prepare before you come to altitude Wishing you success!

      • Thanks Terry, I am coming to the Rocky Mountain Race. Thank you for the reply and advice. I am anxious to get going. Have a great day. By the way, what is the normal temperatures?

  • Hi Terry, I am running my 1st 1/2 at the RMH in Estes Park in just 3 weeks!! My question is, I live in Parker, CO and have been training at around 5600-5700 elevation. Do you think I will be greatly affected by the jump to 7500-7900 elevation? I signed up for your 16 week beginners training and have loved it but am a little worried about the jump in elevation. My husband thinks I will be ok. Thanks for your time in answering my question 🙂

    • Hi Heather, and thanks for your note. Congratulations on entering your first half marathon, and a great choice to kick off your racing experience at 13.1 miles!
      The response to moving to a higher elevation is very individual – however, generally speaking you should be just fine with the 2,000 feet + gain. The best piece of advice I can give you is to forget about pace, and focus instead on your breathing. Think of the rate and depth of breathing on your long runs in Parker area, and replicate that in your race up here in Estes. You will be a little slower than you are running at your elevation. Let that go, and focus on your breathing and enjoying your race experience. This will be your PR for a half marathon, and a great opportunity to have a fantastic race in one of the most beautiful parts of this World! If you can spare the time, think about registering for our exclusive race preparation workshop on the Friday morning before race day – I think we have a couple of spots left at the reduced rate. Trust that helps, and look forward to meeting you at Rocky!

      • Yes, this helps give me a little peace of mind:) I have to work on that Friday (1/2 day), otherwise I would totally go to your workshop that morning!!

        • Glad I could help Heather. Let me know if your work schedule changes. Have fun with the last few weeks of training, and see you in Estes!

  • So I currently live in Fargo, ND where the world couldn’t get any flatter. Do you have any training tips to get used to inclines and and training for the altitude?

    • Hi Sara
      Great question. There are several ways to help get used to inclines for your training. Seek out places that have slopes – these could include golf courses, car parks, stadiums, and stairways – of course it’s more difficult to get used to sustained inclines, at least running hill repetitions in these places will stimulate your musculo-skeletal system so that you can make gains on speed, strength, and endurance, and also build your confidence at the same time. I have known top level elite athletes in Boulder train in multi level car parks in the Winter to keep their uphill stimulus going!
      These can help with running at altitude as well, although training status is not an absolute guide to response to altitude.
      Trust that helps!

  • Hi Terry,

    I am contemplating running the “Run to the Top” race at Mount Baldy, CA in just a little more than a week. The race starts at ~6,000 and ends at ~10,000 feet. I train regularly running 2,200 up to 5,000 feet and than back down. Will this be too big an increase in altitude to run all of it? I have little time to prepare, should I expect to be walking (or worse) at the high end? – Thank you!

    • Hi Greg, and thanks for your note!
      I took a quick look at the race, and it looks like a ton of fun! The course description says that the final mile is the steepest, and is also above treeline.
      As you are used to training uphill to 5,000 feet, although you are better prepared than some, this is going to be a whole different animal for you. I didn’t see a course profile, however, expect to definitely be doing some walking at the top end. Short light steps – I find it really helps to visualize your run beforehand, rehearsing your stride, footplant, tall posture, leaning into the hill.Make sure to start out conservatively, as the reducing amount of available oxygen as you climb in elevation will mean you can go into oxygen debt more quickly if you push it…one thing that will really help you is to work on your breathing – the deeper you can take each breath, and clear waste air afterward, the better off you will be. Check out our mate Sage Canaday and his breathing tips at this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U2RhTNygT3g – Sage is a beast uphill, and knows his stuff!
      Trust that helps, and wish you a successful, and fun race!

  • Hi Terry!
    I wI’ll be traveling from CT this July to run the Rocky Mountain half. I’ve run a few half marathons before but never at a high elevation. I plan to arrive in Denver and spend some time in Colorado Springs. The morning of the race will be my 10th day in CO. Since Estes park is still a higher elevation than where I will be staying the majority of my trip would you recommend arriving in Estes within 24 hours of running or will it not make a difference than arriving in Estes that Thursday, two days before the race?
    How much activity and what/if any training would you recommend during my days in CO before the race?

    • Hi Sara, and thanks for your note!
      These are great questions. I believe that most of your questions will be answered by our post on when to come to altitude
      Responses to altitude will be very individual, so it’s hard to predict how you may respond, unless you have had an opportunity to rehearse this previously at another race, or maybe a previous skiing trip? My best suggestion is to stay in Co Springs until the day before the race.
      You could also take trips up to Estes from the Springs as well.
      On activity, then very easy runs / walks for three days, then gradually increase duration over a couple of days – during this time you will be tapering anyway, so depending on your training status you probably wouldn’t want to run any more than 60 minutes. Recommend doing some strides at the end of each run, just to keep leg speed engaged without high intensity or excessive duration.
      Let me know if the combination of the above, and our post, doesn’t answer your questions. Great choice of race by the way! You will love it!
      Terry

  • I walked/ran the Zion Half a few weeks ago. It was my first HalfM and a truly inspiring event for me and my daughter. I know the elevation was a factor – but Zion compared to the others might have been a comparative piece of cake.
    I’m 60 and trained here in Ohio for the months leading to Zion. No issues at the Zion elevation. Now considering the Rocky Mountain Half and wonder if you think it is stilla walk-friendly course, or should I still train for the double up in altitude?

    • Hi Susan! Thanks for your note, and apologies for the delay in responding.
      Congratulations on completing your first half in Zion! It’s a great race in a beautiful location.
      Rocky is definitely doable for you – looking at your finish time at Zion, your chip time was 3.19 – I calculate that if you maintain the same kind of intensity at Rocky, then you would finish around 3.40 – may need to make sure you get to the start line soon after gun time.
      If you had no issues at Zion, then use the same level of intensity for Rocky – listen to your breathing, and use that as your guide. You will be slower at Rocky as the course is more challenging, and there is less available oxygen for you! Check out the other posts on here about preparing for altitude, and when to come to altitude
      Trust that helps, and let me know if I can help further.
      Happy running!
      Terry

  • Just stumbled onto this post – I’m considering running the Rock & Roll Denver Half this October – I live in Omaha, NE. Is running a PR totally out of the question with that type of change in elevation? Also – is arriving as close as possible to race day (i.e.- the night before) a good strategy? Thanks for the advice!

    Stephen

    • Hi Stephen, and thank for your question.
      Running a PR is highly unlikely depending on whether your training status now is different from when you have previously set a PR. The decrease in available oxygen slows everyone, so that pace at higher elevations is lower than at lower elevations. we recommend focusing on your breathing when on your long runs in Omaha as a guide to intensity for your race in Denver. On timing of arrival for the race, check our post on this subject, when to arrive at altitude.
      Trust that helps, and let me know if I can help further.
      Happy running, Terry

  • I live at sea level in Seattle and I am training for a Standard Distance Duathlon in Bend, OR from 3772 to 4584 feet. At this altitude, should I be concerned that I need to purchase an altitude mask to train with in the weeks leading up to this, or is that not quite high enough to be considered “high altitude”? I am arriving on race day the day before.
    Thank you!

    • Hi Cherilyn, and thanks for your question.
      Although the race in Bend, OR is at higher elevation than where you live in Seattle, it’s not considered a high elevation race, and you wouldn’t need to use an altitude mask for training.
      The most effective use of your resources is to make sure that you have maximized your training time, and to read up on how to prepare for coming to altitude as well.
      Trust that helps, and enjoy your race!
      Terry

  • I’m considering a mountain 100k in Colorado with an altitude ranging from 8,000 – 12,000 and an elevation change of 28,000. I currently live in Ohio, and would be arriving the day before the race. What do you think my odds of finishing are?

    • It should be noted that I recently completed a 65 mile race with similar elevation change, except that it was near see level.

      • Hi Travis, and thanks for your note.
        Your odds of finishing are pretty high, especially as you have recently completed a similar race. The main factor is to pay attention to your breathing intensity – as long as you are running at the same kind of intensity that you use for a long run or race at sea level, you will be fine at higher elevations.
        Also bear in mind that hydration requirements are likely to be higher at increased elevation. Wish you success with your race, and thanks for reaching out. Cheers Terry

  • Hi Terry,

    get read I am going to be visiting Valemount, BC (2777 feet above sea level).

    I do not have any races, but need to do some training runs one which includes 32 KM.

    I plan to run slow and steady as I do for most of my long runs. Do you foresee any areas of concerns with this altitude / long run?

    Thanks for your feedback!

    • Hi Aradna, hope I got that correct!
      Your training run should be just fine. I don’t know what elevation you normally train at, but 2,777 feet is not a major physiological challenge even if you are coming from sea level.
      The main thing to focus on is your breathing – think about your breathing for a long easy run at home, and use that same breathing intensity for your 32 kms in Valemount.
      That will set you up well for a great training run! It can also be really useful, and powerful, to visualize your run in BC being in control of your breathing before you reach there – see more about visualization and guided imagery at https://www.activacuity.com/
      Trust that helps! Happy running, Terry

  • Hi Terry,

    So if I live and train at high elevation (Denver), should I expect to cut my time in FM if I race at sea level, currently I run 4h10min and I want to get down to sub 4

    Thanks,
    Hannah

    • Hi Hannah, and thanks for the question.
      You will definitely be able to run faster at sea level for your race living and training in Denver – is FM “full marathon?” The amount you can cut from your time will depend on your status on race day. along with the terrain for the sea level race, as well as temperature and humidity.
      Make sure you train efficiently for the distance, and you should be good to go if conditions are right! Wish you success..happy running, Terry

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