Training 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.
My 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.