Most of us runners tend to do our running where we do our living – near our homes. This means our physiology gets used to running at the same altitude each day. For many of us, this means sea level. Our bodies get used to the amount of oxygen we absorb with each breath at this baseline altitude.
But what happens when we find that, through necessity or choice, we run at a significantly higher elevation? There is a decreasing level of oxygen density with each metre of altitude, although this really only starts to be felt by runners above about 1,000 metres, or roughly 3,000 feet. Above 2,000 metres the effect definitely starts to kick in. This is the elevation elite athletes seek out for altitude training.
The bioscience textbooks and professional journals abound with literature related to the effects of running at altitude, but what does it all mean to the average runner? Shortness of breath is the first and most obvious manifestation of running at an altitude to which you’re not accustomed. As you go higher, light-headedness, dizziness, nausea, and even vomiting can occur.
I’ve run on several occasions at reasonably serious altitudes - between 3,000 and 4,000 metres, so here is my experience in a nutshell.
I’ve only found I’ve suffered the effects of altitude on one occasion of the five times I’ve run at over 3,000 metres – and that was the occasion I was the least fit by a long shot. And let me tell you, it’s a terrible feeling. The other four times I’ve run at those sorts of altitudes I have suffered no problems at all. The trick in every instance, however, is to run to that altitude – don’t start there. This might sound unusual, and it’s surely impractical in many cases, but if you can make your way to that altitude on foot, you should be fine to continue running there without issues.
I have never lobbed at a high elevation and simply started to run. If you must do this, take it easy and give yourself at least a day to become accustomed to the environment. Bear in mind, however, the harder you push – for example, a race – the more adaptation time you’ll need. Give yourself at least several days or even a week at that altitude if racing.
If you run yourself up to an altitude, you shouldn’t have any major issues once you’re there (although I can’t vouch for racing at that altitude). It’s important to be relatively fit in the first place. If so, simply jog at a slow and comfortable pace as you climb higher. Even an altitude gain of 3,000 metres in a single day shouldn’t pose any major problems if you take it easy. Given the gradient of most mountain roads, this elevation gain will itself entail at least 50 km or about 30 miles of running. The most important thing to be aware of, however, is that if you start feeling lightheaded, stop and walk. If it continues, stop altogether.
During my run around the world I was quite concerned about running over the Andes, particularly as I had just spent months crossing the eastern US at altitudes near enough to sea level. It took me just a day and half to make my way from sea level to the top of the pass over the Andes at nearly 4,000 metres elevation. And yet I didn’t feel out of breath at all. Admittedly, I was running quite slowly, as one does when averaging 50 km every day for more than a year. But, regardless of the pace, I was still at high altitude and I was running uphill the whole time.
The episode was a very pleasant surprise, but confirmed what I’d come to believe from my earlier experiences – if you’re fit and you run up to a particular elevation (within reason), you shouldn’t have any troubles with the altitude.
Tom Denniss is an Australian athlete, scientist, and entrepreneur. He has a PhD in Mathematics and Oceanography, has invented a technology to convert the energy in ocean waves into electricity, founded a company to commercialise that technology, has played professional rugby league, and was a finalist in the 2014 Australian of the Year Award. In 2013 he set a new world record for the Fastest Circumnavigation of the Earth on Foot. Tom lives in Sydney, Australia. A former professional musician, he has played to audiences in eight countries. He has written various articles for newspapers, magazines, and journals, as well as a book about his run around the world, titled The World At My Feet. You can read more of Tom's work here.
Main Photo Credit: Epicstockmedia/shutterstock.com; Second Photo Credit: Kuznetcov_Konstantin/shutterstock.com