Like most of us, I have vacationed in the mountains. I have gone nearly every year to a destination that is at a higher elevation than where I live (that wasn’t too difficult while living in Southern California where the altitude is pretty close to sea level). I have run at altitude. I have felt the effects, but not been super bothered by them. The St. George Marathon starts at 5,200 feet and I felt fine (in fairness, it does start downhill).
So when I moved to a city at 5,000 feet of elevation, I knew that I would feel some effects, but I wasn’t worried. In a couple of weeks, I would feel normal, right? Not so much. According to some, you never quite acclimatize to altitude. There is less oxygen available for your body to use and it only adjusts so much. I spoke to a guy at a track workout last week who moved here from Huntington Beach, California. He said he adjusted after a month or so, but now after six years he has yet to run a race as fast as he did in California. Most articles out there focus on preparing for a high elevation race. There is less written on preparing for a high elevation life.
Why is it harder to run at elevations higher than 5,000 feet? There is a lot of science behind it that I won’t get into here. The bottom line is that atmospheric pressure decreases as elevation increases. Many people assume, incorrectly, that the percentage of oxygen decreases. Instead, in low atmospheric pressure, the overall number of molecules is lower; the percentage of oxygen remains around 21%. There is simply less oxygen in the air.
At higher altitudes, our bodies make adjustments: creating more red blood cells to carry oxygen through the bloodstream, pushing air into normally unused portions of the lungs and producing citrate synthase, a special enzyme that helps the oxygen found in hemoglobin make its way into body tissue [source: Curtis]. High altitude also triggers an increase in our heartbeat, breathing and urination. The low humidity and low air pressure at high altitudes causes moisture from your skin and lungs to evaporate at a faster pace — and your body’s increased exertion requires even more water to keep it hydrated. [source: HowStuffWorks.com]
Did I lose you yet? What does all that science mean? At higher altitudes, our bodies work harder and, therefore, move a bit slower than they do at sea level. Here are some things to remember when getting used to living and running at higher elevations:
- Have patience! It takes several weeks to get used to the atmosphere and oxygen of higher altitude. I thought it would take a week or two. After a month, I am finally feeling somewhat close to normal.
- Check your ego at the door. Your body will move more slowly, at least for a while. If some runners or forums are correct, you may run (at least slightly) slower for a very long time. It might be better to run by effort rather than pace for a while.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. As stated above, not only is it dryer at higher elevations, but moisture evaporates at a faster pace. You also breathe at a faster rate, which requires more water. You should stay hydrated even walking around doing normal activities.
- Take it easy. For reasons listed above, your body works harder just walking around. I could be doing various chores around the house and run up the stairs, resulting in being out of breath. I have found that taking more walk breaks during a run than I am used to helps me go further. Your body also takes a bit longer to recover at altitude, so be sure to comply with the rule of alternating difficult and easy workouts.
- Don’t forget the sunscreen. The sun can be much more powerful the further from sea level you go.
It’s anywhere from an 8 percent to a 10 percent increase for every thousand feet of elevation. In the summertime, you can get anywhere from 40 percent to 50 percent greater sun intensity than at sea level.[source: Reuters]
- Use lip balm. I would get chapped lips running in California, but here? Forget about it. It is much worse. I try to keep some sort of chapstick/balm with me always. As blogger Ian from CompleteRunning.com wrote, “When you pass another runner you want to be able to wave and crack a smile, not your lips.”
- Plan a race at sea level. Everyone tells you that you feel like Superman running at lower elevations. I am already getting excited for Boston next spring! All the painful adjusting is only making me stronger.
- Enjoy the scenery. It seems to me that higher altitudes seem to bring great opportunities for beautiful vistas. You may be running slower up here where the air is thinner, but you can at least stop and smell the roses.