There are a lot of unknowns in running. Everyone's body is different and when you get out there on race day and see some clear areas to improve upon it is hard to find the right answer.
We have heard several questions asked more than any others when it comes to running and racing so we have a series of articles addressing them by our favorite knowledgable running coaches.
The second topic in our series gives you tips that you can put into practice to have a better race at altitude.
Yassine Diboun, Danielle Snyder and Andrew Miller lay out their answers below.
How you train better for a race at altitude:
For us low-landers ( I am originally from Rochester, NY— estimated altitude 500ft), there is no sugarcoating the challenge when going to race at altitude. In an ideal world, you would be able to train on the course and be at altitude multiple weeks before the race. However, for most of us, this is not realistic or reasonable. There are also other tools such as altitude tents and rooms which can enhance our tolerance to altitude but also not an option for many. So for those of you that fall into the category of doing the best with what you got, here are my go-to tips:
- This may seem counterintuitive but travel to the race as close to the race as possible if you can’t go out far in advance. This will help your body not start the acclimation process and you could feel less effective by the altitude.
- Become familiar with what typical altitude responses and normalize that you will not feel 100%. For example, shortness of breath, headache and stomach issues are common responses in altitude. This is a sign you should scale back your intensity. The goal in altitude is not to fight it but accept these are a part of being up high.
- Stay hydrated before the trip and make sure to stay up on your hydration during your adventure.
- You will move slower, plan accordingly.
- It is important to pay attention as some symptoms can become serious. HACE (High altitude cerebral Oedema) is an acute reaction that often presents with severe headache, vomiting, confusion and lack of coordination. If this is happening to you, stop immediately, get to lower altitude if possible and call for help.
- One way to be aware is to monitor your oxygen levels in real time (some watches have this as an option).
- At the end of the day, no race or adventure is worth your life. Altitude can be looked at similar to weather conditions, we must respect the unknowns in order to adapt.
My best suggestion to prepare someone to train for altitude is to get as fit as possible and then go there at least 2 weeks before the event. When you get super conditioned for endurance events you increase your VO2 Max and Lactate Threshold. By really maximizing your potential in those areas you are setting yourself up for advantages where there is less oxygen.
I realize that this is not always realistic for many folks in terms of time away from home. Another theory is to get as physically fit as possible and to arrive just a day or two before your race or adventure, before your system goes into acclimation mode. I tried sleeping in an altitude tent at home for months before Hardrock 100 and I felt that the benefits that I may have gained from the tent might have been offset in poor sleep, which led to poor recovery from workouts.
Working out at altitude (in an altitude room or in the mountains) can also normalize that type of stress for your body so it is more recognizable when you do get up there. I'd say the best suggestion would be to try to get there as early as possible if you can make it happen!
Racing at altitude can be difficult for runners living at sea level. When runners live at altitude for an extended period of time, their red blood cell count increases which helps combat the lack of oxygen at high elevation. Sea level runners do not get this same adaptation which makes running at altitude feel very difficult. For runners living at sea level, the best way to prepare for a race at high altitude is sauna training.
Sauna training will increase blood plasma volume. This is not the same as increasing red blood cell count, but increased blood plasma will increase oxygen transportation which will aid performance at high elevation. To achieve an increased blood plasma, do 2-4 sauna sessions per week for 4-6 weeks leading into your race. Increase the duration of each sauna session over the course of your training. Aim to reach 30-45 minutes in the sauna.
Danielle Snyder is an avid ultrarunner who is constantly reminded of the importance of mental training in addition to physical training. She has run countless 100-mile races, set the FKT on the Oregon section of the PCT, and holds the FKT on the Rogue River Trail.
Danielle has worked with countless professional athletes and Olympians and specializes in helping athletes avoid the pitfalls of negative self-talk, so that they can achieve more balance in all parts of their lives. Using multiple different techniques, Danielle guides her clients along their paths to physical and mental well-being, helping athletes reach their potential. Danielle is a Certified Running Coach and a licensed clinical social worker with extensive additional training. Learn more at Inner Drive Wellness.
Yassine Diboun is a co-owner of Wy'east Wolfpack where he remains highly active coaching athletes of all abilities, including kids, office workers, folks in or seeking recovery from substance addiction. He still likes to get after it on the ultramarathon racing circuit and has enjoyed a long sustainable career. You can learn more about him and the wolfpack at: Wy'east Wolfpack and follow @WyeastWolfpack and @YassineDiboun on Instagram
Career Highlights: *4-time Western States 100 finisher (once in the top 10) *3-time HURT 100 finisher (once in the top 3) *Top 100 finisher of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) *Top 25 finisher at Hardrock 100 *Top 5 finishes at Bighorn 100, Cascade Crest 100, Pinhoti 100, & San Diego 100
Andrew Miller lives in Oregon where enjoys running and volunteering on the local trails. Andrew has won 16 ultramarathons, including the 2016 Western States 100, and works as a running coach at Andrew Miller Coaching. *Represented Team USA at the IAU World Trail Running Championships in Annecy, France (silver medal)