Altitude…How Does It Affect Your Training?


Most people don’t give a second thought to altitude and whether or not it has an affect on their cardiovascular training (which applies to athletes of all types). I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard a client explain “something odd that happened” while they were on vacation, in some instances they felt greatly encouraged due to being at a lower altitude (one lady was so excited about being able to run up several flights of stairs at a time at sea level) and in other instances they were discouraged due to being at a higher elevation (another lady was discouraged to the point of tears that she wasn’t able to go longer than 15 minutes at an elevation almost double to that which she was used to). So what gives? Simple. The higher you go in altitude, the thinner the air becomes (the oxygen concentration per breath decreases), the lower the barometric pressure becomes and the less humidity there is in the air as well.  Combine all these elements and the bottom line is this: the higher you go, the harder your heart has to pump, to meet the demand for oxygen of your muscles.

See, your red blood cells carry oxygen throughout your body. Their job is to maximize the delivery of oxygen from the bloodstream to your working muscles. This process is key to optimal athletic performance. Altitude training causes the body to create new red blood cells in an attempt to increase oxygen supply to muscles.These additional red blood cells help transport more oxygen to working muscles when returning to sea level. Altitude training is also beneficial for increasing your VO2 Max.

However, there is one big disadvantage to training at a higher altitude, and that is the lack of training intensity. At a higher altitude, essentially what you are doing is training at a percentage o f your sea level maximum, which will most definitely affect the intensity that can be held at sustained high-intensity paces. So, if you  live somewhere in a higher  altitude and are training for a sea-level race, make sure to incorporate training at the pace you intend to run at sea-level. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to maintain this pace for as long as you will be able to at sea-level, but it will get your legs accustomed to the turn over rate you are desiring.

Now, if you happen to live at a low altitude and are training for a race at a higher altitude, here’s a few things to keep in mind. Your breathing is going to feel labored even though you are running at a slower pace. True altitude acclimation takes several weeks to occur but, you can improve your results by arriving 2 to 3 days before the event.  Doing this will  allow you the time to fit in a few short runs prior to the race which will help you get accustomed to the increased breathing rate. Upon arrival at the destination of the race, you can expect approximately a 10% decrease in performance, but that 10% can be reduced to only 6% by arriving a few days early.

So, to answer the question that I posed in the title of this post, does altitude affect your training? You better believe it does!

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