How Running at Altitude Affects Conditioning

trail running man on mountain path exercising

Completing a marathon is an amazing feat. For many, it’s the challenge of a lifetime. And training for a marathon is difficult enough. Now imagine running those 26.2 miles at altitude. Each year, scores of athletes do just that, taking to some of the world’s highest, driest locales for the ultimate running challenge. There’s the Madeira Island Ultra Trail, a non-stop, grueling marathon that few have the wherewithal to actually complete. Then there’s the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, the highest marathon in the world.

It takes a seasoned, well-trained athlete to take on such immense physical feats—running at altitude can have a dramatic effect on the human body.

HOW RUNNING AT ALTITUDE AFFECTS THE HUMAN BODY

No matter where you run, there is one basic thing that makes it all possible: oxygen. In environments with normal atmospheric pressure—environments most people are accustomed to—adequate oxygen is delivered to the muscles powering forward motion. At altitude, however, atmospheric pressure is quite low. “Thin” air, as it’s commonly referred to, makes your blood less oxygenated, meaning your muscles have less oxygen to work with. As a result, performance decreases at a faster pace, fatigue sets in quicker, and the problem compounds itself as your body’s oxygen demand increases over the course of the run.

This all, of course, is not a new problem. And no matter where you are in the world, there are ways to train your body in preparation for high-altitude performance.

HOW TO TRAIN FOR ALTITUDE-RUNNING HERE ON THE GROUND

Given the strains that high-altitude running puts on the body, it can be dangerous for those of us accustomed to pounding pavement down here at sea level to keep pace way up there. Risks include:

  • Altitude sickness
  • Dehydration
  • Headache, nausea, and vomiting
  • Collapse
  • Pulmonary edema

There are a couple approaches to training for high-altitude performance down here at sea level. Well, two really good ones that we can recommend.

The first is to run for the hills. What greater challenge is there than walking or running uphill? In terms of your conditioning, sustained hill training can help you maximize the way your body utilize oxygen once you’re at altitude.

Try Overspeed Training

The second is to give overspeed training a go. During overspeed training, an athlete will train at a certain percentage above their maximum output. How’s that possible? Well, it requires the right tool to control variables and prevent injury. For this, many of the world’s top athletes turn to the AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill for overspeed training, a tool that allows them to increase their overall speed and performance without risking serious injury.

There is a third option of course: do all your training at altitude! But this is an option not readily available to most runners. So we do what we can to train smart and put ourselves in the best position to tackle high-altitude runs safely. Hill training and overspeed training are great places to start.

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