Like many outdoor enthusiasts, my most memorable times are spent in the mountains. I love the sense of freedom and peace that comes from running over peaks and through the woods. It’s no coincidence that a lot of races on my calendar take place in the mountains, be it in Colorado, Utah, or even the Alps.
However, I don’t love gasping for air at higher elevation.
Difficulty breathing, fatigue, light-headedness and other symptoms associated with altitude sickness can turn a fun day into a sufferfest. But whether you’re just planning on getting out while on vacation or are traveling to a high-altitude destination for a race, there are definitely a few things you can do to prepare, even if you live at sea level. Here are a few tips, both for pre-trip preparation and at the actual event, that I’ve picked up along the way that have helped me optimize my adventure time in the mountains. Easier breathing guaranteed!
The fact that there is less oxygen in the air at higher elevation means there is less oxygen for the body to use, making even the easiest run seem strenuous. Yet many runners still get frustrated when they are unable to run at the same pace at elevation. This seems nonsensical to me. Accept the fact that you will be slower at altitude. Even if you have the opportunity to acclimate, which generally takes at least three weeks of living at +7,000ft, leg speed will never be as fast as it is as sea level. So get over it.
So as you’re training, ignore the pace per mile on the GPS watch. Instead base your workouts—such as intervals or a pace run—off of perceived exertion. The added benefit of PE workouts is you develop more body awareness and fine-tune the ability to recognize what it feels like when you’re pushing it, or are going to easy, etc. If you’re training at altitude, remember that there’s no shame in cutting back your mileage and training at a slower pace.
Female endurance athletes in particular can be at risk for iron deficiency anemia, sometimes from low dietary intake. Iron is essential for oxygen delivery to cells; not having enough means O2 can’t hitch a ride. This is even more of an issue at higher elevations, because your body needs to maximize O2 delivery but there isn’t as much to go around. The effects of anemia include shortness of breath and fatigue, both of which are exacerbated at elevation. Good sources of iron include beef, chicken, clams, dark leafy greens, and breakfast cereals enriched with iron. Keep in mind that animal products contain heme-iron, which is more readily absorbed by the body than the non-heme iron found in veggies and fruits.
Also, on race day, don’t eat only ‘astronaut food.’ Gels and gummies are a great source of short-chain, fast burning carbohydrates; however, for endurance events the body needs more than carbs. Since the pace tends to be slower at higher altitudes, eating real foods like nuts, bread, potatoes, avocados, dried meats, etc. is actually easier than you may think. Proper nutrition will go a long way in helping the body avoid some of the fatiguing effects of altitude.
Also, alcohol can have a way more potent effect, making altitude sickness even worse. Lay off the booze when you’re going to be running at elevation. Some people find they get dehydrated more easily at elevation, so drink water like a fish. Add an electrolytes (such as Hammer Endurolytes or Skratch Labs) if you’re running in the heat or for longer, multi-hour efforts.
It’s always important to run with good form, but it is even more essential at altitude since the body will fatigue faster. Too often people run like Quasimodo, in a hunched-over position. Make a point of practicing standing up taller, relaxing the shoulders down, and envisioning a string leading from the chest down the trail. This will help expand your lungs to maximize air intake. Once you’re in the mountains, if you feel like you’re gasping for air due to the lack of oxygen, slow down. Avoid hyperventilating. Take slow, deep, even breaths. Stop if you need to catch your breath.
Also, when running uphill, don’t squat like you’re on the toilet. This puts too much strain on the quads and doesn’t use the glutes to their fullest potential. I’ve heard the term “blown quads” but never “blown glutes.” The glutes are one of the strongest muscles in the body—activate them by tilting the pelvis forward, tucking your tail (as in yoga), and taking smaller steps.
Recovery takes longer at altitude. For an all-day effort, or during a race, start out at a comfortable, conservative pace and then pick it up later on if you feel good. If you start out too fast, it will be more difficult for the body to recover in the thinner air.
Strength training is a must, especially if you live in a flat area but will be running in mountainous terrain. Basic circuit training that focuses on functional strength and larger muscle groups can help mimic the effect of running uphill. No fancy gym membership is required. Exercises such as push-ups, pull ups, tricep dips, core work, box jumps, a few plyometric moves, single leg squats and lunges increase strength while helping prevent injuries as well. Bust out a circuit of 3 sets of 10 exercises a couple times a week and you’ll be climbing uphill like a mountain goat!
With a little effort plus a few minor adjustments, finding one’s happy place in thinner air is very attainable. I know I’m happiest when I’m high … on a mountain, that is (or when making extremely bad puns!).