Last Updated: December 19th, 2020
Planning for an elevation run? Have you thought it through? If not, here are some of the impacts of elevation running. Take appropriate precaution and you will come out strong.
How does elevation impact running?
Elevation impact your running by increasing your risk of dehydration, VO2 Max drop, slower performance, increased race time, pulmonary or cerebral edema, coping with lower temperature, acute altitude sickness. On the positive side you will have an improved performance at sea level, your body will be primed for future high altitude races.
Below we have described all the impacts in great detail. Also, apart from the impacts provided above, we have included some more below. So, read on…
1. Increased risk of dehydration
As you move high up the altitude there is a huge risk of dehydration.
As you go up, the oxygen level decreases.
Your lungs have to work more to get the required amount of oxygen.
With the increased respiration rate your body will be losing out the fluid more.
According to the Wilderness Medical Society, your body loses water through respiration twice as fast at a higher altitude than at sea level.
Another reason for dehydration can be increased urination.
At higher altitude there is an increase in the production of urine.
However, when the temperature is really low, you may suffer from loss of appetite for both food and drink.
So, your water intake drastically goes down.
Now combine this with increased respiration and more urination.
And suddenly you are severely dehydrated.
So, it is essential for you to drink water at an interval of 15-20 mins.
The Institute for Altitude Medicine recommends that you should drink extra water when at higher altitude to combat the water loss from respiration and urination.
2. VO2 Max drop
VO2 Max may be a new term for many of the beginners.
Now what is VO2 Max and how does it impact your performance.
VO2 Max is the amount of oxygen used by your body during exercise at a maximum effort.
In other words, how much oxygen your heart can pump and how much oxygen your skeletal muscle is using.
For a very long time, it was an absolute measure of endurance.
That means an athlete having a higher VO2 Max value was considered better than the athlete with lesser VO2 max.
However, with the advancement of science, VO2 Max is not the absolute measure of endurance but it is still a major factor.
Now, what happens as you move up the altitude.
The air pressure decreases…
This makes oxygen diffuse slowly with the red blood cells.
As a result, when the blood passes through your lungs, it is not completely charged with oxygen.
This is the reason for a drop in your VO2 Max.
For every 1000 ft. increase in altitude, there is a VO2 Max decrease of 1.9%.
The drop in VO2 max value is quite significant even at a moderate altitude of 3000-4000 ft..
3. Slower performance
A moderate change in altitude, 3000-4000 ft, may show a significant difference in your performance.
This is true even for elite runners.
The above two reasons are the major cause of this slower performance.
At higher altitude, the oxygen reaching your muscle is decreased.
You are breathing more heavily and losing more water leading to dehydration.
The drop in the air pressure causes the VO2 Max value to reduce.
If we consider the direct impact of VO2 Max value on your performance, a 8 min mile race may become 8:45 min a mile at 5000 ft above the sea level.
At higher altitudes, other climatic conditions like low temperature also make running difficult.
Although your body gradually gets accustomed to atmospheric conditions by various means like:
When the oxygen level is less:
1. You breathe faster to increase the oxygen level
2. You urinate frequently as the kidney tries to maintain balance
3. There is an increase in heart-rate and blood pressure
4. Increase in red blood cells to carry more oxygen
5. Thickening of blood to make your heart work more
However, this also slows you down.
4. Increased race time
Needless to say, with slower performance, your race time will increase…
Here is how…
The most common reason for this obviously is the decreased oxygen reaching your muscles.
We have already spoken about how there is a drop in the VO2 Max value with altitude.
A study was held to find the relation between the altitude of the different cities where marathons are held and the marathon race time.
In total 16 cities were considered which were located from 0-2800 meters from the sea level.
The race time for both male and female athletes who ranked in 21st to 100th position was taken into account.
The result shows that the finishing time was positively correlated with the altitude for both males and females.
On an average with every 1000 meters increase altitude, the race time of men was increased by 10.8% and for women 12.3%.
5. May cause pulmonary or cerebral edema
In general edema means swelling that occurs due to trapped fluid.
Medically speaking, the fluid inside the blood vessels leaks outside the blood vessel causing the swelling of the surrounding tissues.
Pulmonary edema means the edema of the lungs.
Your lungs have ting air sacs called the alveoli.
Alveoli have thin walls to facilitate the exchange of air.
Pulmonary edema occurs when fluid seeps out from the blood vessel and fills up the alveoli instead of air.
Apart from other causes, one of the reasons for Pulmonary edema is the rapid ascent to high altitude (more than 10000 ft).
This is called as High Altitude Pulmonary edema (HAPE).
HAPE is typically seen when low-landers climb high altitude quickly.
Cerebral edema is the swelling of brain.
This restricts the flow of blood to the brain cells.
Cerebral edema can have serious consequences and can be fatal at times.
One of the major causes of cerebral edema is high altitude of around 4000 meters.
So if you are planning to run at higher elevations you must take necessary precautions.
Visit your GP in advance and get all the medical tests done to ensure you do not develop any of these complications.
DO NOT! I REPEAT DO NOT be unprepared.
6. Have to deal with lower temperature
You would have enjoyed a vacation in the hill station.
Warm clothes are the must-pack item in your list.
It’s true that as the elevation increases the temperature decreases.
Let me explain a little more about why this happens.
The atmospheric pressure is the weight of air pushing you from above.
So as you ascent, this layer of air decreases i.e. the air pressure decreases.
The air expands and the temperature decreases.
In general, if the climate is sunny with every 1000 ft increase, temperature decreases by 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit.
If it is humid, i.e. dense cloud or snowing, the temperature decreases by 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit every 1000 ft increase.
If you are planning for an up-hill run, you should know about the climate conditions and the lowest temperature.
Pack your warm clothes according.
You must carry appropriate running shoes if there is a chance of snow.
If you stay near sea level you may find low temperatures and chilly wind making your runs difficult.
If at all there is snow, there are chances of skidding, you need to watch out.
Some runners find running is cold temperature better.
Lower temperature decreases the stress on the body overall.
7. Acute altitude sickness
This is also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
If you are from the low-lying area you are quite susceptible to AMS.
You may feel to have a hangover without drinking (so not fair :() as you move up.
Life is a race and everyone is moving as fast as he could.
When you start your ascent, even you will have the urgency to reach.
This will be the biggest mistake you would make.
You will make yourself more prone to AMS.
At 9000 ft you have 60% chances of AMS and at 14000 ft the chances are 80%.
Watch out for these signs:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty in sleeping
Obviously, with these symptoms your running becomes challenging.
So, what to do ??
Break your run – Sometimes you have the potential and the enthusiasm to reach your finish line as fast as possible. Don’t try that!! Instead you can break your run for shorter distances. I agree that you may take some extra time, but its worth spending rather struggling on reaching.
Keep extra days before the race – If you reside somewhere close to the sea level, you should keep some extra days in hand before the race. This should be at least 2-3 days. Otherwise you may be more prone to develop AMS and your performance may go for a toss. These extra days will give enough time to understand the race conditions and plan your strategy.
Go easy – You would have reached there to perform your best. But go easy. Do not start your workout as soon as you reach. Give yourself some time and rest so that your body gets adjusted to the new environment. Go for a small run first, this is just to see the tip of the iceberg.
Practice deep breathing – The oxygen uphill is comparatively lesser as compared to the sea level. You may find extremely difficult to breathe. You breathe hastily as your body demands more oxygen. Practice deep breathing. This will help you swallow a good amount of oxygen. If you don’t know how to do that, here is a guide that explains step by step about different breathing techniques that a runner can use.
8. Improved altitude performance due to acclimatization to altitude
So you reach your destination and attacked by AMS.
Now what should you do?
If its not severe, you don’t need to do anything…Your body will take the necessary measures…
You suffer from AMS mostly because of the in oxygen.
Acclimatization is your body’s natural means to correct altitude sickness.
This takes from a couple to days to a couple of weeks.
The time taken by your body is dependent on the altitude and also upon your susceptibility.
After about 2 weeks, you will see a drastic improvement in your running.
You will see yourself exceeding your day one performance.
So the crucial aspect here is the time.
9. Improved performance at sea level
So what happens to your regular performance?
Running on the altitude makes you a better runner in a lot of ways.
You will see the difference in your sea-level performance.
Once you go high up over 5000 ft, you are putting yourself through deep stress.
Running uphill at 5000 ft maybe double as stressful as running at sea level.
This high endurance running does wonders for you.
- Your stamina will be improved
- Your lung capacity has increased
- You may learn a better breathing pattern
- Your lower body muscles will be strengthened
In all, you will see a significant improvement in your performance at sea level.
10. Your body will be primed for future high altitude races
“Don’t cry because its over, smile because it happened.” – Unknown
Every day is lesson, every race is a lesson.
Your first race uphill can be gruesome, challenging and there are chances that you may not perform up to the mark.
But this is not the end of it.
What you have is not present theoretically – Experience.
You get the taste of uphill running.
You know how your body will behave at different altitudes.
No two runners can have the same experience.
And your experience will help you with your expectation for your future race.
11. You must arrive early to your destination (read weeks)
If you are planning so, you are doing the best thing!!
Arriving early gives you a good amount of time to prepare for the race.
Your body is capable of acclimatization to altitude.
But in many cases, you do not give sufficient time to your body.
If you arrive early say 1-2 weeks early, you have sufficient time to overcome altitude sickness.
Your body will get accustomed to the environment.
Also, the impact of AMS on your body will be minimal.
The other advantage is practicing at a lower temperature.
You get time to practice at a lower temperature and get used to it.
This is particularly important if you are from the hot and humid region.
The chill breeze and lower temperature can be a hindrance in your running.
For your next race uphill, keep few extra days in hand and you will see the difference.
12. Or, take advantage of delayed onset of AMS
AMS puts you in a very tricky situation.
How it affects you can be different from how it may affect your co-runner.
Other than the altitude there are other factors on which the AMS depends.
- Genetic behavior of AMS
- A history of previous AMS
- Faster ascent to the destination
- Resident at an altitude less than 3000 ft above sea level
- Consumption of alcohol
- Over-exertion on the first day
Keeping these into consideration, you can rely on your past experience.
Some runners may suffer from AMS almost immediately, whereas for some, it may be delayed for up to 96 hours.
So, if you belong to the later group, make the best of the situation.
Try to reach the destination, just a day prior to the race.
This way you will not have to spend extra days prior to the race and the delayed onset of AMS can be a boon for you.
However, you should be sure that you will not immediately suffer from AMS and you cannot be sure until you go there.
So, for your first high altitude race, it is advisable to reach way early.
You may modify your plan for your subsequent high altitude races.
13. Stretching of quad and hip-flexors
I’ve written extensively about the effects of tight and weak on your running performance and I’ve provided methods to strengthen your hip-flexors.
Now that you are running uphill, this becomes even more improtant.
Running uphill will make you very tired very soon.
If you want to run long, try having a stronger quadruples and hip-flexors.
You can practice a few simple stretches to make them strong and flexible.
While the classic squats and lunges are great for this, you can make some modifications for better results.
Cresent Lunges Knee-Up
- Start with high lunge with left knee bent at 90 degree, hip square and toe facing forward
- Raise your arms up
- As you stand, lift your right foot up to the chest.
- Return to the starting position
- Repeat 10 counts
- Repeat with the opposite foot.
Full-Range Figure Four
- Sit up-right on the floor with knee bent and hands on the floor for support.
- Place your left ankle on the right knee.
- Turn your right knee in a full range of motion – turn right , then center and again right.
- Repeat it for 10 times
- Repeat with the opposite leg.
Low Lunge Variation
- Start with low lunge with left foot planted, knee bent at 90 deg and right knee on the floor.
- Place your palms on the sides of the left foot.
- Lean-to the left side and lift your right arm above the head.
- Hold for 4-5 deep breaths and then repeat with the opposite foot.
- Repeat 5 times on each side.
One-Legged Bridge Lift and Lower
- Lie on your back on the floor.
- Knee bent and arms resting on your side.
- Lift your hip.
- Shift your weight on the left foot and raise your right leg.
- Hover your right foot up and down.
- Inhale as you go down and exhale as you move up.
- Repeat this for 8 counts.
- Repeat it on the left foot.
- Stand on the floor with your feet wider than the hip.
- Send your hip back and bent your knee as a lower squat position.
- Shift your weight to your right leg as you stand up and extend your left foot back, while tightening your glutes.
- Return to the squat position and repeat with the opposite foot.
- Continue for 1 min.
You can follow these tips for a better stretch
- Leave your muscles lose while stretching
- Always breathe while stretching
- Wear comfortable clothes
- Keep sipping every 15-20 min.
15. Train with poles if you plan to use them in the race
Poles are very helpful while running on hilly terrains.
When you are using the poles, your arms are also engaged.
They provide additional support to your feet and helps in running.
You can easily fold the poles in 2-3 segments and it can fit into your backpack.
You may not feel the extra weight of the poles as they are made of carbon fibers and very light.
A good example is Foxelli Carbon Fiber Trekking Poles. They are collapsible, lightweight, shock-absorbent and suited for multiple sports like hiking, walking, running, etc.
When to use the poles?
Steep uphill – Running steep uphill is risky and tiring. Poles make the run little comfortable and you will save a lot of energy
Running on trails – When you are running on trails, there is too much pressure on your feet. Using the poles, makes you engage your arms. Your arms provide additional power and improve your performance.
Running downhill – You would have felt as if you are falling and tend to have lesser control over your running. Poles will help you maintain the balance and slow you down while descent.
How to use your poles?
There are three different techniques for using the poles.
But which one to use depends on where you are running.
- You need to sync the alternate poles with the alternate foot. So with your left foot, your right-hand pole should be planted.
- Plant the pole next to the foot.
- To get the maximum benefit, incline the pole angled at the rear end when they hit the ground.
This technique is helpful if you want to walk fast on the terrains
Double Pole Plant
- Place both the poles in front of you
- Lean forward and push on them for 3 steps.
- Repeat again.
This is extremely helpful when you are running steep uphill. You get additional balance and support from the poles.
Offset Pole Plant
It is the combination of the Alternate and Double Pole technique.
If you want to run fast try using the offset pole plant technique than the alternate plant technique.
- You need to sync the alternate pole and foot.
- Once you plant the pole take 3 steps then plant the pole again.
16. Breath training for high altitudes
Planning for a high altitude run, breath training is a must.
With the increase in altitude, you may find breathing getting difficult.
You struggle to get a sufficient amount of oxygen for your body to function.
So, it is a good idea to learn the right breathing technique.
Deep breathing – It is a great breathing technique not only for altitude but otherwise also. If you would not have practiced this, you would be breathing small shallow breathe, limited to the lungs. In deep breathing, you need to breathe slowly but it should be deep enough for your stomach to expand. However, as your activity will increase, your breathing will increase but it should be deep down till your belly.
Pressure Breathing – This is another technique that helps at higher altitudes. You need to forcefully exhale out the carbon dioxide. In this way you make way for easy exchange of the gases and you will be inhaling more oxygen.
17. Stock up calories at the start
You must eat well at lower altitudes.
As you rise up, your appetite decreases.
At higher elevation your metabolism rate increases.
Hence you would be consuming more calories.
You would be smiling now thinking of weight loss 🙂
The only problem is stored carbohydrate is consumed leaving behind that annoying fat 🙁
The BMR (basal metabolic rate) is increased.
That means your body is burning more calories.
So over a period of time with the loss of appetite and increased BMR, your muscles starts getting weak.
This adversely impacts your performance.
The best way to cope up with it is to eat well at a lower altitude.
Your body can store calories for a while.
When you are at elevation, try to eat small meals at even intervals.
If using gels, try to use it mindfully. Here is how you should use running gels to protect yourself from its adverse effect.
This will keep the calorie intake going without having much toll on your digestion.
18. More time for recovery
You are stressed more when you run at elevation.
The major reasons could be dehydration and lack of oxygen.
At sea level the recovery time is mostly 1:1 or 2:1.
This just reverses at elevation.
It is mostly 1:2 at a higher altitudes.
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