High-Altitude Training: The benefits, and how you can cash in on it!

Coach Casey · October 15, 2018

If we as coaches and runners have learned anything during the “running boom,” it’s that high-altitude training produces results. In the past five decades, 95% of all distance athletes who have won medals at the Olympics or World Championships have had extended training periods at high altitudes.

In Colorado, Arizona, Mexico, and the Rift Valley in Kenya, elite endurance athletes follow high-altitude training principals. They maintain training camp at a higher altitude while doing most of their races and hardest sessions closer to sea level. This combination of high and low altitude training has consistently led to faster times and better results. The questions are simple then: how does high-altitude training actually work, and why isn’t everyone (you included) doing it? 

High-altitude training can have great benefits to your aerobic conditioning

Let’s start with the basics:

Training at a higher altitude, optimally between 6,000 and 10,000 feet, increases the red blood cells produced in a person’s body. The red blood cells, living their best lives floating through the body’s blood vessels, carry oxygen to all parts of the body through a protein called hemoglobin. They then transport carbon dioxide back to the lungs to be expelled via the most basic human mechanism, breathing.

We know that muscles need oxygen to function. We know that the body needs its muscles to run. So, therefore, the existences of millions of red blood cells is what keeps the muscles firing and the body running. As athletes spend more time at higher altitudes, they produce excess red blood cells. These allow for their muscles to be provided with more oxygen at a faster rate, allowing for longer, faster running. That’s about as much science as I am comfortable with, so let’s move on to what this has to do with your training!

Why isn’t everyone mixing in a bit of high-altitude training to their regimen?

I honestly don’t know…

The reality is that high-altitude training for a few weeks only produces enough excess red blood cells to be useful for an athlete at sea level for a week to 10 days, so the timing of races is imperative. However, spending even a bit of time at high altitude while continuing a training regimen can produce positive physiological adaptions for everyone, not just the elite.

If you have an opportunity to spend time above 6,000 feet, make sure you take advantage and get in some smart training. The key to high-altitude training is to focus on effort versus pace. Initially your body is going to be starving for oxygen, so you may not be able to break any PR’s. Fueling and hydration are even more important at higher altitudes. Make sure you’re drinking more water than normal. Be sure to also help promote those hemoglobin levels with an iron rich diet.

You don’t need a fancy high-altitude training center or an elite camp. Go on vacation to the Rocky Mountains, Mexico City, or the grand Lake Tahoe, and get a bit of aerobic use out of it. You deserve a vacation, but you also deserve a taste of that sweet high-altitude training life.

Whether you’re training at high-altitude or sea-level, take advantage of live, virtual, professional coaching with Charge Running!

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