As more and more races are held at higher elevations, and the opportunity to train at altitude broadens with the availability of training camps, many athletes have questions about how to be most effective with their chance to train or race at altitude. Our earlier posts have covered running and racing at altitude, and preparing for running or racing at altitude. We also receive many questions on when is the best time to arrive before a race to either have time to acclimate, or to minimize the impact of the reduction in the partial pressure of oxygen (and thus amount of oxygen available) and resultant race performance. This post is directed at answering that specific question, as far as possible.
In the same way that we recommend three levels of goals for goal setting with athletes, this post will cover three levels of timing typically encountered and requested by athletes. These are, in an ideal world, realistic opportunities, and tight on time. We have also added a couple of additional resource items that typically pop up in questions.
In an ideal world
If it is possible, ideally you should aim to spend at least 14 days acclimating to a higher altitude before your race. This gives your body the chance to start to appreciate the physiological benefits of being at a higher elevation – see our page with information on the benefits of being active at altitude. To get the maximum from a stay at altitude, research suggests that between 3 and 4 weeks to reach peak levels, with some sources suggesting up to 6 weeks.
Initial acclimation to altitude takes around 7 days typically. During this time, training volume should be reduced by 10-20%. (Note this is on top of a taper period that typically precedes a race.) All training should be led by perceived effort or heart rate, rather than running pace. We always recommend that athletes focus on the breathing intensity and frequency for a long steady run at home, and then run at a similar intensity at altitude.
Few athletes may have the time and resources to be able to invest in this amount of time pre-race – still useful to know nevertheless.
Many athletes will combine a race at altitude, often at a beautiful tourist destination location, with some vacation time as well. If you fall into this category, then the best advice is to spend at least three days prior to race day at a higher elevation. We have also found that adopting a step-up protocol can be beneficial. So for example, here in Estes Park we are at 7,500 feet – for the first night coming from sea level, or any other lower elevation, we recommend an overnight stop in Denver, at 5,280 feet. Then come up to Estes the next day, and spend at least 2 days at this higher elevation before race day.
As noted above, all training should be led by perceived effort or heart rate, rather than running pace. We always recommend that athletes focus on the breathing intensity and frequency for a long steady run at home, and then run at a similar intensity at altitude. Any runs during this acclimation period should be at an easy pace, and for a short duration. You may notice that your heart response at altitude is higher than usual even when resting – it’s reassuring that this is completely normal!
Tight on time
Most athletes, with limited holiday allocation, resources, and family commitments, will likely find themselves in this category. Both documented research and anecdotal evidence suggests that if time is tight, the best option is to arrive as close as possible to race time, if possible, less than 24 hours before race time. From our experience with the training camps that we hold here in Estes Park, we have certainly seen athletes run reasonably well on the first training run we hold, and then to feel slower on day 2, and then to pick up again on day 3. Typically by day 7 most athletes are already feeling adjusted to the altitude, and gain confidence in their abilities to deal with the environment.
How do I know how I will feel at altitude?
The short answer is, there is no guarantee! However, if you have been to higher elevations previously, such as a ski resort, or mountain hike, and experienced no major issues, you can expect to run well at altitude. Individual responses do vary, and we have seen an Olympic level athlete who was incredibly fit find it relatively harder at altitude than a lesser trained athlete did. Your reaction to altitude is not necessarily permanent, and can be governed by factors such as iron deficiency, fatigue, illness, training status, stress level, emotional stress, etc…
Research has suggested that the optimal altitude to live at for the maximum physiological benefits is between 2,100 m (6,900 feet) and 2,500 m (8,200 feet) above sea level. Estes Park is at 7,500 feet, so right in the middle of the ‘”sweet spot” to get the most from your time spent at altitude. Our camps here at Active at Altitude usually take place at anywhere between 8,200 feet and 7,500 feet depending on the accommodation location.
The responses in this post have been gleaned from our experience training athletes of all abilities in Estes Park, Colorado, USA, and also from Notes from Higher Grounds, An Altitude Training Guide for Endurance Athletes, by Dr. Elizabeth Egan.
Training 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 June, 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 – CNN 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!