After recently taking a trip out west to a running camp in Mammoth Lakes, California, I’ve experienced the feeling of frustration while trying to adjust to altitude. Despite the heavenly display of panoramic mountain views, I found myself counting down the minutes of my first few runs while I huffed and puffed the thin, dry mountain air. It’s a common known fact that altitude affects breathing, particularly when you’re an endurance athlete embarking upon a long run. Yet, beyond this difficult stage of shortness of breath and what seems like jogging, people training at altitude know that the more they struggle up there, the easier it gets down here. Altitude training has become increasingly popular since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when Africa and Mexico dominated the distance events because they were fully acclimated years in advance. Since then, altitude training camps have popped up in great numbers, and people have tried everything from altitude tents to masks, in attempt to compete with their African rivals. While altitude training is proven to increase red blood cells and oxygen delivery, there are a few things to know about benefits, disadvantages and risks involved in the adjustment process.
Since there is less oxygen at higher altitudes, the body has a reduced amount of oxygen in the blood. The way our bodies deal with this is by increasing heart rate, and by producing the hormone erythropoietin, or EPO. When the kidneys secrete EPO our bodies are able to produce more red blood cells. These extra blood cells allow the body to improve oxygen delivery. Since red blood cells have a lifespan of about 100 days, they allow a runner to return from altitude and have a greater number of red blood cells than if they had stayed at low altitude. The best benefits come from living at altitude for 3 weeks or longer at 7,000 to 8,000 feet.
Training at altitude is exhausting. The first 3 to 7 days are especially difficult, and it can even take as long as 3 weeks for some to fully adjust. During the adjustment stage, altitude sickness can occur. It is easier to become dehydrated in dry, high-altitude climates. It takes about a week to readjust to low altitude again.
Altitude training can be a great tool to help increase red blood cells and running efficiency, however, it is not a magical fix and does not guarantee any physical improvement in future performance. Keep in mind that running and racing at altitude nearly always results in a decrease in pace and times, and the benefits are not usually seen until returning to lower altitude. Also note that not everyone reacts the same to altitude training. In the end, there is no proof that altitude training will ever beat out hard work and smart training, but it sure is nice to take a run up in the mountains and enjoy a bit of a challenge now and then.
About the Author: Amanda Winslow, is a junior at Florida State University, and a member of the Seminoles Cross Country and Track & Field teams. She enjoys long runs on the sandy trails of Tallahassee, as well as creative writing, photography and painting (see original artwork above).