The Mile High Club: Running at Altitude

Posted by Filed Under: Running Tips

snow dogAre you a member of the Mile High Club? No, not the one that involves airplanes and sardine can acrobatics. I’m talking about running at elevations of 5,280 feet and higher.
Living in Denver, all of my running is done at a high altitude and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Running at a lower altitude than you’re used to can leave you feeling like Superman— you cruise along with energy to spare and your chest swells with boastful pride and oxygen-rich air. Running at a higher altitude on the other hand will make you feel like a slug, and a wheezing slow one at that. However, if you’re careful, and keep some of the following tips in mind, high altitude running can be very enjoyable.

Hydrate. Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after your run. Then drink some more. Dehydration occurs quicker at higher altitudes, so this is good advice even if you won’t be running. Experts generally agree that eating snow to hydrate is not a good idea because it burns too much energy to warm the snow to body temperature and it drops your core temperature. Everyone agrees that eating yellow snow is a bad idea.

There’s less air up here. This is a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that according to renowned running coach Dr. Jack Daniels, at an elevation of 6,500 feet you lose 10 percent to 12 percent in VO2 max and at 7,500 feet you lose 12 percent to 15 percent. The good news is that a lower density of air means lower air resistance and better running economy. You just keep telling yourself that when you’re winded like an overweight smoker climbing to the top row in the stadium.

Enjoy the view. It’s a little known fact that the scenery improves by 10 percent to 12 percent with every 2,000 feet you gain in elevation. All right, I just made that up, but you should prepare yourself for a slower paced run than you’re accustomed to and you’ll find that focusing on the surroundings instead of your watch will make that easier.

Wear sunscreen. Putting yourself a mile closer to the sun may seem insignificant when you think about how far away the sun is, but I assure you that it will not feel insignificant tomorrow if you fail to heed this advice.

Lip Balm, and plenty of it. When you pass another runner you want to be able to wave and crack a smile, not your lips.

Take it easy. Stick to easy runs until you become acclimated. Don’t try to go out and run a tough session of intervals on your first run at altitude. If you’ll be racing at a high altitude, plan to spend as much time as possible at that altitude prior to the race.

A couple of weeks ago I spent the weekend in a quaint log cabin up near Grand Lake, Colorado (elevation 8,700 ft). After putting many of the above tips and guidelines to use, I learned one additional trick that works better than any of the rest. I have never heard any running magazines, Web sites or coaches mention this tip, so it’s exclusive to the Complete Running Network. We really do go the extra mile (vertically) to bring you the best running advice. Without further ado here is the best altitude running tip that I can give you:

Run with a good sled dog who understands the “mush” command. I assure you it will do wonders for your time.

About Ian

Hello, my name is Ian and I'm a runner. After several years of promising to train for and run the Bolder Boulder 10K I finally signed up for it in 2005 with zero training under my belt. Shocked that I was slower than I thought I should be, I made it my goal to be faster the following year. I'm still not as fast as I should be, but I have been a runner ever since. I believe in quality miles over quantity of miles. I believe that you have to run faster in order to run faster, and I believe that I can. I believe in the Garmin. I believe in motion control and that I have an unhealthy addiction to running shoes. I believe in carb loading and tapering, even before a 5K. I believe I’ll never need to buy another t-shirt ever again. I live to run and I run for the post race spread, where the free food and drink flows like milk and honey, and sometimes even includes milk and honey.

  1. Aaron Engelsrud on January 29th at 7:19 am

    I lived in Denver for 5 years and while I hadn’t really started running when I lived there, I was pretty active – skiing, backpacking, etc. – and the altitude can really beat you down if you don’t pay attention to it. Also, as noted in the article, the dryness of the climate can also be difficult to manage, sweat dries quicker (because it’s not a humid) so you may not notice the loss of fluids as quickly as you would in more humid climates.

    Great article!


  2. davegill55 on January 29th at 7:46 am

    I never ran before I moved to Denver a little over 3 years ago, so when I ran a half marathon in North Carolina this past December, I couldn’t believe the difference! I knocked off almost 5 minutes from my previous PR for a half marathon.

  3. greenneck on January 29th at 11:39 am

    I’m a slow & lazy runner (I stop for the duration of Daylight Savings Time), but even I have noticed some real benefits to regularly running circa 5280. When I go hiking at an even higher elevation, I don’t get nearly as winded as I used to, and can outmarch the younger crowd. Not that they’d admit it – they always claim they’re sluggish due to hangovers or mysterious, invisible injuries.

  4. kch on January 29th at 1:46 pm

    @davegill55 – very impressive PR improvement!

    I haven’t raced anywhere outside Colorado in a few years, and am planning on running the New York marathon this year. I’m wondering if I should plan running at a faster pace there then I would consider in Colorado – and if so, how much faster. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

  5. davegill55 on January 31st at 7:11 am

    Hey Kristen,
    I didn’t plan on running it that fast, it just happened. I got into a comfortable pace which I noticed was a faster pace than normal. I went with it and it just felt right.

  6. Shilingi.Moja on February 2nd at 7:27 pm

    I lived north of Nairobi, Kenya for several years at 7500′ above sea level. Then lived in Nairobi (5700′) for about 3 1/2. After running at either place for several months, I could knock 30 seconds to 1 minute per mile off my time just by coming to low altitudes in the US. It was great for the ego.

  7. Katie on May 7th at 2:17 am

    cheers for the advice, but unfortunately no sled dogs in sight around here!

    some advice needed though … i plan on running the mt olympus marathon at the end of june, which goes up to 2800m approx. Unfortunately i live in an area where I can’t really get much above 1000m, and won’t arrive there til about 4 days before. So the question is, any way to prepare for running at altitude when you don’t have it?!

  8. Patty on September 1st at 11:33 am

    I’m about to visit my boyfriend who lives in Silverthorne. I’m currently training for the Seattle marathon and am a few weeks into my training program. Since I’m used to running at sea level, and will be running at 9,035 feet elevatipon when I visit, it’ll be difficult to train. Since reading this article I feel much more confident. I’ll try to take it easy and incorporate some cross-training into my program to not over work my body.

    Another question though – I heard you should wait a few days before exercising in order to acclimate. Is that good advice, or will I acclimate quicker from exercising?

  9. Eric Neitzel on October 23rd at 12:18 pm

    Great tips for Wildland Firefighters like Hotshots and Smoke Jumpers. Thanks!