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The Mile High Club: Running at Altitude

Posted Feb 15 2012 10:39pm

Are you a member of the Mile High Club? No, not the one that involves airplanes and sardine can acrobatics. I’m talking about running at elevations of 5,280 feet and higher.

Living in Denver, all of my running is done at a high altitude and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Running at a lower altitude than you’re used to can leave you feeling like Superman— you cruise along with energy to spare and your chest swells with boastful pride and oxygen-rich air. Running at a higher altitude on the other hand will make you feel like a slug, and a wheezing slow one at that. However, if you’re careful, and keep some of the following tips in mind, high altitude running can be very enjoyable.

Hydrate. Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your run. Then drink some more. Dehydration occurs quicker at higher altitudes, so this is good advice even if you won’t be running. Experts generally agree that eating snow to hydrate is not a good idea because it burns too much energy to warm the snow to body temperature and it drops your core temperature. Everyone agrees that eating yellow snow is a bad idea.

There’s less air up here. This is a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that according to renowned running coach Dr. Jack Daniels, at an elevation of 6,500 feet you lose 10 percent to 12 percent in VO2 max and at 7,500 feet you lose 12 percent to 15 percent. The good news is that a lower density of air means lower air resistance and better running economy. You just keep telling yourself that when you’re winded like an overweight smoker climbing to the top row in the stadium.

Enjoy the view. It’s a little known fact that the scenery improves by 10 percent to 12 percent with every 2,000 feet you gain in elevation. All right, I just made that up, but you should prepare yourself for a slower paced run than you’re accustomed to and you’ll find that focusing on the surroundings instead of your watch will make that easier.

Wear sunscreen. Putting yourself a mile closer to the sun may seem insignificant when you think about how far away the sun is, but I assure you that it will not feel insignificant tomorrow if you fail to heed this advice.

Lip Balm, and plenty of it. When you pass another runner you want to be able to wave and crack a smile, not your lips.

Take it easy. Stick to easy runs until you become acclimated. Don’t try to go out and run a tough session of intervals on your first run at altitude. If you’ll be racing at a high altitude, plan to spend as much time as possible at that altitude prior to the race.

A couple of weeks ago I spent the weekend in a quaint log cabin up near Grand Lake, Colorado (elevation 8,700 ft). After putting many of the above tips and guidelines to use, I learned one additional trick that works better than any of the rest. I have never heard any running magazines, Web sites or coaches mention this tip, so it’s exclusive to the Complete Running Network. We really do go the extra mile (vertically) to bring you the best running advice. Without further ado here is the best altitude running tip that I can give you:

Run with a good sled dog who understands the “mush” command. I assure you it will do wonders for your time.

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