I remember sitting on the bus for my first ever half marathon this past summer and overheard a couple from Houston who were stressing a bit about the effect of running at elevation for the first time. I caught them off guard as I laughed and said I was worried the other way, as I was coming down 3,000 feet while they were going up 3,000 feet.
So as I was thinking about a nice topic for a blog yesterday while running in 30 degree weather at 7,000 feet, I thought of the people who would be coming up to elevation at various ski towns across the Rocky Mountain Region over the next few months. Would they know what to expect from the change in altitude plus dealing with the weather conditions we also have in the winter months?
Here are my thoughts and suggestions on running while at elevation above 5,000 feet.
Altitude, or running with 22% less oxygen
Running at altitude has been compared to the imagination of only using one lung. You see professional football players sucking on tanks when playing at Mile High Stadium on Sundays, so what is it like to run longer distances than 100 yards at the most? I remember the first run I ever did when I went from Biloxi, Mississippi to Cheyenne, Wyoming twenty plus years ago; it was as if my lungs were no longer part of my cardio system. The body does not like the idea of trying to expend energy without the proper mix of fuel and oxygen.
Most places you investigate about how to deal with coming to elevation talk about coming early to acclimate yourself. Unless you have extra time, or could afford your own sleeping chamber, not really practical. Other things I have seen talk about taking iron and antioxidant supplement. This article shows that green tea extract which was shown to improve the body’s ability to deal with the lack of oxygen.
Fluids, get more
Another thing people forget is that the humidity is extremely low at elevation. Since most of the body’s loss of fluids happens via breathing, and you tend to breath a whole lot more while working out, you simply dehydrate faster and more extreme. Many people get headaches and attribute that to altitude sickness, however it most likely is simply dehydration and can be solved by drinking twice the normal amount of fluids. I know when I run at home elevation of nearly 7,000 feet I consume at least 2x the amount of fluids from when I run my races in Salt Lake City, which is 2,500-3,000 feet lower.
Run Slower Stupid
The facts are simply you will not perform as you do at lower elevation and trying puts yourself at risk of injury. Most people put 20-30 seconds per mile slower at least when you get over 5,000 feet and that is almost exactly what I see in the opposite direction. Even Ryan Hall in a blog entry talks about how pacing yourself, especially that first or second run, is extremely import to ensure you don’t have a harder time with recovery.
Dealing with Temps, it’s cold up here.
One thing that people forget is that the sun is a huge heating source, given the lack of atmosphere to attenuate it. This is why people get sun burned that first time on the ski slopes or hiking, as they don’t put on enough sunscreen given the elevation. The opposite is true when they go outside and feel warm in the sun, they don’t layer up enough for when they get into a shaded situation or clouds roll in. You layer up for the worst case, not for basking on the sundeck outside of the hotel room.
The key is layers to keep you warm and then to insulate you from the elements. My rule of thumb is 1 layer for ever 20 degree drop in ambient temperature below 52 degrees. So at 32 degrees I run with one layer more than a base layer, which is a wicking material to keep sweat off my skin. At 12 degrees I add another insulation layer on top of that, etc…and I don’t suggest running below -20 degrees. You get too cold and the air actually starts to injure your lungs and exposed tissue, especially the eyes and soft tissue in the nose/throat.
Also, make sure you cover up your extremities and wear a hat. The hands, toes and ears are all very susceptible to frost bite and when you are exercising, including skiing, you are sweating and making this more extreme. While running or biking, wear gloves and extra wicking layer of socks along with some decent warm ones. As for your ears, that depends on the hat. A good stocking cap that covers your ears will be good, or ear bands and a running hat for those who care about looks. Just keep all skin covered as best you can and realize that these parts of your body are what really are needing the protection.
Summary, be prepared
They key in all of this is to really come to the mountains and any higher elevation prepared, especially in the winter months. At the same time, be realistic on your exercise and if you are doing something competitive, know you won’t set a PR, but you will most likely set a personal favorite in the experience category. So if you layer up, hydrate properly and be reasonable, you can enjoy the beauty as well as the experience of running miles at over a mile high.