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Training at High Altitudes

Elite runners train at altitude to increase the number of red blood cells, improving oxygen delivery to their muscles.

How does Training at High Altitudes Improve Oxygen Delivery to Muscles?

In high altitudes, the amount of oxygen in the blood is reduced because there's less oxygen in the air. To compensate for reduction of oxygen in the air, the kidneys secrete more of a hormone called erythropoietin, which causes the body to create more red blood cells.

The average life span of a red blood cell is 90 to 120 days. Runners are often able to train harder and perform better for several weeks after they return from about a month-long stay at altitude because their blood still contains the extra blood cells that were produced when they were training at high altitudes. Runners who trained at high altitudes will have more red blood cells than runners who did not train at high altitudes.

Which Altitude is Best?

Research indicates that the best altitude is between 7,000 to 8,000 feet. When you train at high altitudes, high-quality training becomes more difficult to achieve. Easy and long runs are doable at altitudes between 7,000 and 8000 feet, but the thinner air makes it difficult to do intense speed work.

Runners who train at high altitudes often travel down to about 4,000 feet a few times a week to do their speed work.

Tips for Running at High Altitudes

  1. Take your time
    • Begin your altitude training with low- to moderate-intensity running for the first five to seven days.
    • If the race is will be held at a higher altitude than you are used to, plan to run at the higher altitude for four to six weeks before the race for peak performance.
  2. Race Conservatively
    • You will be pushed into your anaerobic zone much faster at altitude.
    • Start your race slower and build to race intensity over the first third.
  3. Stay Hydrated
    • Dehydration naturally occurs at higher altitudes
    • Drink at least three liters (12 or 13 cups) of fluids per day.
  4. Readjust to low altitudes
    • Once you descend to a lower altitude, wait at least five to seven days before you try to race again.
    • The wait is needed to allow your body to reestablish blood-acidity and electrolyte levels.
  5. Get plenty of rest

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