Living Low – Racing High

I’m from Phoenix where the elevation is about 1000 ft above sea level. In July I’m running a race where the elevation will be from 7000-9600 ft. How can I train for the altitude when I live in Phoenix? How can I train for the hills that I’ll encounter? (CH)

I get questions related to training for elevation or in elevation frequently. Let’s state a couple basics first. Most commonly it is quoted that somewhere around 3500 feet elevation is where the effect of elevation is credited. Below this, there is little to no adverse affect in performances. Sprints can benefit at high altitudes and race distances over 800 meters will suffer due to the decreased oxygen available. [I won’t go into the physiology or science/physics behind it.]

And let’s be clear that it doesn’t suddenly show up at 3500 feet. It’s on a continuum and so the greater the difference in your living/training elevation and race elevation the greater the adverse affect. All things being equal, someone living/training at 3000 feet racing at 6000 feet will experience less issues than someone living/training at sea level and racing at 6000 feet. Everyone’s performance is adversely affected by altitude. Nobody escapes this. Elite athletes do not. Those living in the mountains do not. Everyone performs at a percentage of their sea level 100%.  However, adaptation does occur and through adaptation we can have less negative effect from the altitude than someone who is not acclimated or has not adapted to the elevation.

In the case of suddenly going from lower to higher elevations you can experience a number of unpleasant physical symptoms. However, some people are more susceptible  and some people are not. They even have a term for it: “Acute Mountain Sickness” (AMS). The main cause of altitude sickness is going too high too quickly. But, according to “The Travel Doctor” AMS will be experienced in about 75% of people with elevations in excess of 10,000 feet. The symptoms usually start 12 to 24 hours after arrival at altitude and begin to decrease in severity around the third day.

Here are symptoms of mild AMS:

  • Headache
  • Nausea & Dizziness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Disturbed sleep
  • General feeling of malaise

With that, let me respond to your specific questions.

  1. Best solution: Allow adaptation or acclimatization to occur before you race. This generally takes a minimum of 3-plus days at the altitude you will race. But, full physiological adaptation (increased red blood cells, etc.) takes about 3 weeks. So take a long vacation in the mountains. Continue to train. And race at the end of your vacation.
  2. Excellent solution: The research and practical advice on altitude training is guided by the phrase: “live high, train low”. You will get all the benefits (i.e. adaptations to your body by living at elevation (say Flagstaff – 7000 feet) while training down here in Phoenix (1100 feet). Buy your cabin in Flagstaff and commute to work and train in Phoenix.
  3. Practical solution: Arrive late and take drugs. Since symptoms usually start 12 to 24 hours after arrival – do not arrive early. Arrive as close to race time as possible to get a head start on your race before you are likely to feel all those AMS symptoms.
    1. Drug of choice appears to be acetazolamide (Diamox). Depending on who you talk to feedback is both good and bad. (Check out WebMD for details.) The only way to know if it works for you is to try it BEFORE you ever go. Do not try this for the first time on race day or that trip. Also, be warned that the side effects of acetazolamide are similar to AMS. Good luck telling the difference.
    2. Training for the climbs is easy really – altitude or not, you will be using the same muscles; contracting in the same way you run hills anywhere. Get out on the trails (if there it is a trail race) or on the roads and start running up and down to mimic what your race will be like. In the Phoenix area, South Mountain’s main road to the top will provide a good simulation. Now do repeats until you have your desired mileage and elevation change quota. This is a case that passively doing a hilly course (like this) is good. You can further enhance it with shorter intense hill repeats every other week [i.e. 6×600 3-4% incline @ 5K race pace effort].

The final advice on AMS is that more than ever you must stay properly hydrated. Acclimatization is often accompanied by fluid loss. The recommendation is to drink 4-6 liters per day of water to compensate which is over and above workout fluid loss.

The really good news is that you have several months to prepare and small doses of the hills from now until then will prepare you well without having to do too much too soon on hill training which can wreak havoc on bodies!

Want to experience running at altitude while getting faster and stronger? Arizona Running Camp is the place to go. Both adult and high school camps are offered every summer. Get your running to a whole new level – in just one camp. Just see what past campers say. Registration is now open!


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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