Sep 19, 2022
Now that the reliving of my world run in these blog posts is over, I’m going to post a weekly running article. I wrote these back in 2015 but they’re just as current today. Hopefully readers will get something positive out of them. This week’s is about running at elevation (see below).
While Lootie has finished her world run too, there is a relatively newcomer you may wish to follow. His name is Mark Shuttleworth and he’s currently in Bulgaria. You can follow him on the link below.
Running at Elevation
Most of us runners tend to do our running where we do our living – near our homes. This means our physiology gets used to running at the same altitude each day. For many of us, this means sea level. Our bodies get used to the amount of oxygen we absorb with each breath at this baseline altitude.
But what happens when we find that, through necessity or choice, we run at a significantly higher elevation? There is a decreasing level of oxygen density with each metre of altitude, although this really only starts to be felt by runners above about 1,000 metres, or roughly 3,000 feet. Above 2,000 metres (6,600 feet) the effect definitely starts to kick in. This is the elevation elite athletes seek out for altitude training.
The bioscience textbooks and professional journals abound with literature related to the effects of running at altitude, but what does it all mean to the average runner? Shortness of breath is the first and most obvious manifestation of running at an altitude to which you’re not accustomed. As you go higher, light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, and even vomiting can occur.
I’ve run on several occasions at reasonably serious altitudes – between 3,000 and 4,000 metres (10,000 to 13,000 feet), so here is my experience in a nutshell.
I’ve only found I’ve suffered the effects of altitude on one occasion of the five times I’ve run at over 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) – and that was the occasion I was the least fit by a long shot. And let me tell you, it’s a terrible feeling. The other four times I’ve run at those sorts of altitudes I have suffered no problems at all. The trick in every instance, however, is to run to that altitude – don’t start there. This might sound unusual, and it’s surely impractical in many cases, but if you can make your way to that altitude on foot, you should be fine to continue running there without issues.
I have never lobbed at a high elevation and simply started to run. If you must do this, take it easy and give yourself at least a day to become accustomed to the environment. Bear in mind, however, the harder you push – for example, a race – the more adaptation time you’ll need. Give yourself at least several days or even a week at that altitude if racing.
But back to my original premise – if you run yourself up to an altitude, you shouldn’t have any major issues once you’re there (although I can’t vouch for racing at that altitude). It’s important to be relatively fit in the first place. If so, simply jog at a slow and comfortable pace as you climb higher. Even an altitude gain of 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) in a single day shouldn’t pose any major problems if you take it easy. Given the gradient of most mountain roads, this elevation gain will itself entail at least 50 km or 30 miles of running. The most important thing to be aware of, however, is that if you start feeling lightheaded, stop and walk. If it continues, stop altogether.
During my run around the world I was quite concerned about running over the Andes, particularly as I had just spent months crossing the eastern US at altitudes near enough to sea level. It took me just a day and half to make my way from sea level to the top of the pass over the Andes at nearly 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) elevation. And yet I didn’t feel out of breath at all. Admittedly, I was running quite slowly, as one does when averaging 50 km (31 miles) every day for more than a year. But, regardless of the pace, I was still at high altitude and I was running uphill the whole time.
The episode was a very pleasant surprise, but confirmed what I’d come to believe from my earlier experiences – if you’re fit and you run up to a particular elevation (within reason), you shouldn’t have any troubles with the altitude.