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How does elevation impact running9-min

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.

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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.

How does elevation impact running10-min

4. Increased race time

Needless to say, with slower performance, your race time will increase…

Here is how… 

If you are used to running closer to the sea level, you may find running at elevation to be more tedious.

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:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • 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