Running at Altitude

I recently gathered some information for a client I am training for the Tough Mudder race July, 8 in Running Springs, California. The race is held at 6800 feet above sea level…not too high, but for us SoCal folks it may pose a challenge. Thought I would
share.

Altitude Acclimatization and Running

Here is what happens when you travel to an area of higher altitude:

The plasma volume in your blood (the watery part) decreases and the red blood cell concentration increases. This natural compensation occurs because your body is trying to get more oxygen to your active muscles. Your heart kicks into overdrive to deliver more blood, so your breathing becomes more rapid to get more oxygen. Keep in mind when you are feeling out of breath that the percentage of oxygen in the air at altitude is
exactly the same – 20.93%. So do not panic, you will not die from lack of oxygen! It’s actually the atmospheric pressure that decreases as you ascend, therefore decreasing the partial pressure of oxygen in your blood…if that makes sense.

Some people suffer from acute altitude, or mountain, sickness (AMS) when traveling above 6000 feet. Symptoms may include headache, difficulty breathing, general weakness, nausea, loss of appetite and/or sleeplessness. Your body adjusts best to altitude if you are able to travel to your race destination for a stay longer than 10-14 days. If that is not possible, experts recommend arriving within 24 hours of your race to
minimize the effects of AMS.

The two biggest challenges athletes face at higher elevations are dehydration and glycogen depletion. The air holds little water which increases the amount of water you lose through respiration and perspiration. You may not even be aware of it. So be sure to drink plenty of water even when you are not feeling thirsty. Simply carry a bottle with you and take a sip every 15 minutes. This will ensure your muscles are fully
hydrated. Try to avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks as well. These tend to dehydrate people or drink more water to balance the loss. In addition to keeping your hydration balanced, your basal metabolic rate increases as the elevation increases. Which means your body needs more calories to maintain its basic life functions. This is especially common at altitudes above 9000 feet. The higher the altitude, the greater the impact. A shift in how your muscles rely on energy sources while exercising occurs as well. Instead of your muscles relying on fat for energy, they tend to use more carbohydrates (glucose) for fuel. This is great news, since our bodies use carbohydrates more readily for fuel than fats. So keep your diet higher in healthy carbohydrates to keep your glycogen stores topped off.

If you really want to have an edge over your competition, take advantage of your body’s desire to build new red blood cells. As I mentioned before, red blood cells are the oxygen carrying part of our blood; specifically hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the part of the red blood cell that transports oxygen to working muscles. Iron is a crucial component of
hemoglobin, so eating a diet rich in iron prior to your race will help adapt your body’s natural process. Some iron rich foods are meat, fortified breakfast cereals, dark leafy greens, dried beans, peas, dried fruits and prunes.

The most important key to all of this is being mindful of your body. You now have a
better understanding of the effects of altitude on your body, so just listen to what your body is telling you while at altitude. Stay ahead of the game by drinking plenty of fluids. Water is best, but also drink fluids with electrolytes. You do not want to flush them out of your system. Sodium and Chloride are most crucial. Remember that food is fuel. Even if you have no appetite you need to eat. Don’t forget to take advantage of that carbohydrate window and begin refueling as soon as possible after your event. Chocolate milk is a great alternative if consuming solid foods right away doesn’t seem
palatable.