Getting Mentally Tough Does not Require High Altitude

Sometimes, you get the most interesting quotes and observations about sports psychology from non-psychologists or professional mental game coaches. In a Arizona Republic article on the Center for High Altitude Training in Flagstaff headed up by the legendary physiologist jack Daniels, a couple of key quotes probably overlooked by readers offer insights into performance improvement.

Jack Daniels Ph.D. is reknowned for his work with elite athletes and high altitude training. He is certainly an advocate of high altitude training as a means to improving your racing performance. His technical expertise and knowledge in physiology is beyond reproach. But it is two specific comments he made not really about training at altitude which caught my eye.

1. “It hurts to train at altitude. If that raises your pain tolerance level one notch when you go back to sea level, that same new willingness to deal with discomfort is associtaed with a little faster pace than it used to be. Psychologically you’re going to be better when you go down (to sea level).”:

2. As a much of a proponent of altitude training, he is even more sold on the benefits of training in  the right environment. “I would say to you if you went to altitude to train but weren’t happy, you’d be better off not going, even if it’s beneficial.”

He underscores points previously explored on posts here on pain/discomfort. There are indeed psychological advantages which override the physiological. If we are going to explore the boundaries of our physical capabilities, we do need to be able to stretch the pain limits we have. We now know there is a strong mental component to our interpretation to the phenomenon of pain. We do not need to train at altitude to explore those limits. But it does take discipline and commitment regardless.

Similarly, in the scope of training and life in general, if we do not enjoy the process, it takes its toll. Our peace of mind, pleasure, sense of accomplishment are compromised. We cannot separate our sport and life psychology. Stress is additive. If you aren’t satisfied with your environment it will affect your running performance and progress. If you think that stress from your environment or your thoughts do not affect you physically, try this. Purchase or find someone who has a GSR2 biofeedback device. It is a wonderful tool that can vividly demonstrate that you can’t hide from stress or your negative thoughts.

The point is this:

If you want to race better don’t only train smarter but get your head into handling the discomfort that inevitably you will encounter at exploring your race boundary limits. That does not have to be done at altitude.

It is not about where you train, but it is about how you train and how you train your brain. In the mountains, valleys or in the plains you can do this. It does not have to be done at altitude.

There are far too many ways you will improve your running which do not include training at altitude. Until you have done all those things, my advice is to stop toying with the “idea” of altitude training to get your next 5k or marathon PR and maximize what you do where you are!


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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3 Responses to Getting Mentally Tough Does not Require High Altitude

  1. Adam says:


    In reading your comments about race pace, I am certainly persuaded of the value of even pacing (Haile’s world record, which you analyzed convincingly, was awe-inspiring). But how does one choose an appropriate pace for the marathon? Not having raced the distance before, I find myself second (third, and fourth…) guessing my pace. Of course there are the pace-converter calculators, etc., which have had a hand in guiding things thus far, but I want to make sure I respect the distance. Although I have run no races in this training cycle (I am, however, a highly experienced racer), I have used tempo runs as “time trials” in order to gage fitness and speed. My last 10.2 mile tempo run (over hilly terrain) was 65′, which supposedly keeps my 3 hr. marathon goal within the realm of plausibility. A 6:51 pace is not particularly hard at this point, but of course I’ve not tried a really long run at that pace (and don’t plan to until the race). How “easy” should one’s pace feel in order to maintain it for the 26.2 mile distance (and I realize that any advice you have will be nested in caveats regarding one’s quality of training)?

  2. Adam,
    You are not alone in this dilemma of first time marathoners – regardless of experience at other distances. There are many calculations and all are just ball park. There is indeed a lot of variation between runners and how accurate they are. Combining a few of them and using my experience I would say you should be able to run a half-marathon @ about 6:30/mile or better to anticipate making a good run at a sub-3:00 marathon.

    Of course if this is late in your training – it’s too late to do much except modify expectations. Otherwise, to get to your point of how do you know what race pace should be… you have to be incorporating as many miles as possible AT your goal pace of 6:51/mile. The only way you will become efficient at that pace is to run that pace… slower won’t do it and faster won’t do it.

    Your whole training program has to be focused on and established off of this. Long runs, goal paced runs, etc.

    As for how “easy” it should feel – here is what I tell my marathoners: by 13 it should feel like you’re holding back and just relaxed, by 17 or so it should only feel like it’s been a long run and “I can do a 10 miler in my sleep” type feeling. Otherwise, if you are “feeling” the miles @ 17… it’ll be a very long marathon… and an even longer last 10k.

    You’re obviously a very respectable runner with your times. My guess is that you would benefit from a bit more of a structured program specific to the marathon to optimize your talent and potential.
    Good luck.. I would love to hear how you do.
    Coach Dean

  3. Adam says:

    Many thanks, Dean; your comments are very much appreciated. I’m sure you’re right that I would be a good candidate for a structured, tailored program; my cobbled-together plan has been disrupted by injury and impatience. Next time, perhaps. The race is June 1, and I’ll let you know how it goes.

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