Altitude Training 101
If you follow elite track athletes on social media, you'll notice a trend in the next few months... altitude camp! A lot of groups do 3-5 week trips to altitude before the start of their season (NorCal, Little Wing), or live at high elevations year round (Steph Rothstein, Kara Goucher!).
The fun stat is in the past 40 years, 95% of medalists at World or Olympic championships have trained or lived at altitude. That doesn't mean someone has to go to altitude to be successful. It does mean that coaches and sports scientists have turned their attention to understanding altitude training, so there is a growing tome of knowledge on how the body reacts to the change, and how to best set up a program to elicit positive benefits.
Whether you're taking a ski weekend, and want to adjust your workouts, or you are planning an extended trip for training, here are some basic tenets to follow to get the most out of your time. And, as important, to not put yourself in a hole for when you get back!
ALTITUDE TRAINING 101
BEFORE YOU GO:
1. Up your iron intake
If you've ever been diagnosed with anemia, you might get a serum ferritin test to make sure you aren’t too low. Even if you haven't, as a female runner, it's not a bad idea to check this once or twice a year, if you have the means. There are websites online where you can order the single test and take it directly to a lab (cut out the trip to the doctor).
Consult with your physician about supplementing iron if you're near the low end of the range. At least, make sure your diet has ample sources of iron. (Red meat and spinach are two that I like. Here's a list of more). Vitamin C helps with absorption, so add citrus, or broccoli or peppers to the recipe. And calcium inhibits the uptake of iron; skip the milk with your iron-rich meals!
Going to altitude with low iron will limit or eliminate any benefits to red blood cell production.
2. Get fit!
No need to rest to prepare for a trip. You will want to reduce activity for the first few days once up there, and slow down your paces. The fitter you are before you go, the higher your baseline when you start running.
WHILE YOU'RE THERE:
1. Eat your carbs
Metabolism increases at altitude. Not only is your body working harder to get the same amount of blood to your muscles, it is also creating more red blood cells and mitochondria to adapt to the lack of oxygen. So, don't be surprised if you want a little bigger helping of rice at dinner... you need it! I tend to go on a 4 meal cycle, otherwise I get too hangry in the afternoon.
This is the time to absolutely obey the 20 minute refuel window (aim for about 40g of carbs, 10g of protein within 20 minutes of a workout. The sooner the better, to replenish glycogen stores).
The cure - all! Hydration will help with the effects of jet lag and elevation for the first few days. Plus, a lot of high-altitude places have dry climates. And, your body will need more water as you increase blood volume.
3. Train Easy
For the first few days, cut your mileage and your pace. If you are a heart rate runner, you can run according to that. If not, go by feel and don't be afraid to slow it wayy down. I'll start at almost a minute per mile slower than my normal run pace.
These first 3-6 days are key. It is when your body is using extra energy to adapt to the new conditions. If you push too hard too early, you could get an overtraining effect, and actually have a negative outcome from the trip (we don't want this!!!).
Know that your body is working harder at all times while there, and especially while working out. You get the effects of a faster run, without the pounding. Rejoice!
BASED ON YOUR TRIP LENGTH:
You aren't really there long enough to do a workout (besides normal running). But, if this is a ski weekend or vacation trip, you probably don't want to. Use the above tips to stay healthy and energized, and be able to seamlessly fit back into your training when you go down.
And have fun! The mental benefits of a location change can't be overstated. Reconnect with running in a new place, get some outdoor therapy (ask locals for the good trails. One great thing about mountain towns... beautiful scenery).
If you want to get in a workout, take the opportunity to do leg speed (less than 30 seconds. could be short hills) or intervals at tempo pace. For anything in the middle, VO2 max type repeats, or speed endurance, you will not see as much of a benefit. Remember, it will take you longer to recover, so increase rest between reps.
If you really want some high intensity sessions, one option is driving to a lower altitude. That's what many pro groups do, it’s known as the live-high, train-low principle. Especially if you're on a mountain, you might be able to drop significant elevation within a 45 minute drive.
Finally, take advantage of the "training camp" boost. This is the increase in effort and effect that comes from being in a place where training is a main focus. You can work on good habits when in a new environment. That might mean better routines for cooking, sleep, strength work, etc. Maybe getting through some books to rejuvenate mentally. Whatever it is, you have the opportunity to end your trip both refreshed, and confident in the quality work you have put in.
Long Stint (3 Weeks to a Month)
Wowza. This is full on altitude camp! If you are spending this much time, chances are you have distinct racing goals. By the end, your body has fully acclimated, so you'll get the red blood cell boost for a bit after. Some elite athletes will go straight from altitude to a race (there might be a bit of a flat period in the week after coming down. Racing immediately can be a way to sneak in a hard effort before that happens). Each person is unique, and everyone has a slightly different way they react. The best way to know your individual reaction is to try it (so, don't go for the first time before your biggest race). Red blood cell concentration will return to normal, but trust that other physiological and psychological benefits from the trip remain.
Written based on my experience and general knowledge! Other helpful resources:
The Beginners Guide to High Altitude Training via Girls Gone Sporty
Altitude Training For Everyone via Runner's World
The Benefits of Altitude Training for Non Pro Runners via Runner's World