A few weeks ago it was February vacation week here in the Northeast, which for my family meant our third annual trip to the Canyons Ski Resort in Park City, Utah. I did some running while we were there and marveled as I always do at how challenging even a 30-minute easy run seemed at 6,800 feet elevation. On our second day there, returning from a run winded, sweaty and beat, I was teased by the bellmen hanging out in front of our hotel. ”Tough run?” one asked me. When I agreed, he reassured me, “Don’t worry, you’ll be able to go home and run marathons after a few days up here!”
But was that really true? Was I really getting any training benefit from the six days we spent in Park City, a mile and a quarter up in the sky?
Our bodies at altitude: At higher altitudes oxygen levels are lower, and our bodies need to compensate so our tissues can still get enough oxygen. Our kidneys start producing more of the hormone erythropoeitin (yes, EPO, of Lance Armstrong fame, but we all make it naturally too), which tells our bone marrow to produce more red blood cells (RBCs) to carry oxygen around. The higher up we go, the more EPO our kidneys produce, the more RBCs we make. This was shown in studies sponsored by the USOC and USATF (Best Practices Recommendations for the 2011 IAAF Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea). Then, when we go back down to the normal oxygen levels at sea level and run, we have lots of extra RBCs carrying extra oxygen, which bolsters our athletic performance. No wonder spending time at altitude is sometimes referred to as natural doping!
In a post on the Runners Connect blog, RC founder Coach Jeff Gaudette wrote he has seen increases in EPO levels after as little as 3-4 days at altitude and that even a short 7-10 day stay at altitude can lead to some blood boosting. However, in most of my research it’s generally agreed that it takes several weeks to gain a sustained beneficial altitude effect. In the USATF-USOC-sponsored studies, 28 days was the time period in which a 1-5% improvement in 3K or 5K race times after altitude training was seen, an amount which was felt to be significant enough to affect race outcomes.
What the elites do: Interestingly, elite athletes do not spend all their time at high altitude during an altitude training camp. As coach and athlete Kevin Beck discusses in his altitude series for Competitor, instead they “live high, train low”: 2-3 times/week more intense workouts are done closer to sea level, even though the athlete is living and doing most of his/her easy training higher up. This is because athletes run slower and don’t use oxygen as well at higher altitudes, so if they did all their speed work at altitude it would be difficult to achieve the desired improvements. Beck references a landmark study conducted in Deer Valley, Utah in 1996 in which this phenomenon was unequivocally shown. In the USATF-USOC studies, the best elevation for “living high” was between 7000-8000 feet, whereas it was best to do quality training at elevations less than 4,000 feet. Most athletes return to full-time sea level living 2-3 weeks before major competitions.
For fun, I looked up the elevations of some of the well-known training meccas of distance running and here is what I found: 1) Iten, Kenya: 8, 000 ft 2) Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: 7,546 ft 3) Mammoth Lakes, CA: 7,880 ft 4) Flagstaff, AZ: 7,000 ft. 5) Boulder, CO: 5,430 ft. The USATF recommends altitude training in the US in Flagstaff, Park City/Deer Valley, Mammoth or Colorado Springs, all of which have nearby low-altitude sites for quality training.
If you are going to be running at altitude: All sources I looked at recommended iron supplementation before and during an altitude stint. Iron is needed to make RBCs, so you will need extra since you’ll be making many more of these than usual. Proper hydration is also important. The low humidity characteristic of high-altitude locales, as well as the increase in your breathing rate that results from breathing thinner air, causes you to lose fluids more rapidly so you need to keep drinking to avoid dehydration. As far as training, in a Running Times article, coach and exercise scientist Greg McMillan recommends reducing your running volume by 25-50% in the first few days you are up high, and keeping the pace easy even after those first few days of adjustment. He recommends avoiding hill repeats or running at any pace quicker than your lactate threshold pace. Jeff Gaudette makes similar recommendations, and also suggests increasing recovery time if doing any interval training.
Finally, Kevin Beck cautions against trying to take advantage of altitude training if you have a cold, as you do not make EPO well in this situation. Since I had a chest cold during our entire vacation, this was sad news for me. Oh well, there’s always next year!
Have you ever trained at altitude? Where did you go, and was it helpful?