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Is high altitude training worth it?

How difficult is running at high altitudes and does it have any benefits for the runner?

One of the effects of high-altitude running is that your muscles receive less oxygen than they are used to
One of the effects of high-altitude running is that your muscles receive less oxygen than they are used to (iStock)

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Running might seem difficult to some. But running at high altitude is always more challenging. I found that out while trying my first half marathon in the hills. It seemed easy at first – a 10 km downhill which I sprinted through (rookie mistake)! The next 11 km – a majority of which was a steep uphill climb was the hardest run-climb-jog-crawl that I had ever done. I took about 45 minutes more than I usually did to run the same distance during this race and it has been sitting on my list of things to do (again) since. 

Naturally then, when a race in Ladakh made history for being the first half marathon in sub-zero temperatures, and the world’s highest frozen lake half marathon at the 13,862ft high Pangong Tso, I started wondering if it was even possible for regular athletes to complete it. 

“The participants in the first edition of the race had all been training specifically for this run. One-week acclimatization prior to the run was a big plus point with two practice runs. And all of them had done a full or a half marathon in the last five months. They ran daily and had high altitude adventure experiences,” explains Chamba Tsetan, founder of Adventure Sports Foundation of Ladakh (ASFL) – the organizer for Pangong Frozen Lake Half Marathon.

These runners might have trained specifically for a frozen surface. But any kind of high-altitude training can be deceivingly hard. Ask Vikram Bhambhu. Bhambhu ran the Bir Billing Half Marathon in April 2019 in Himachal Pradesh and has done several practice runs in places like Leh, Shillong, Chail, and Chakrata. 

“I love running in mountains. The pristine condition with fresh air always rejuvenates me. But pacing becomes more important especially when you are running downhill. You often tend to run faster than usual while running downhill which may affect your performance in the subsequent leg of the race (if you are aiming at a particular finish time),” says Bhambhu.

One of the effects of high-altitude running is that less amount of oxygen goes into your muscles. Oxygen helps in performance, but as the altitude and distance increases, the oxygen demand increases. This means that your blood passes through your lungs without being completely recharged with oxygen from the air. This results in decreased performance. 

Delhi-based runner, Ashish Chillar, understands this. While running the Ladakh Half Marathon in 2018 he thought the hardest thing was to tell himself that this race is not meant for a personal best or better timing. “A lot of times runners are so consumed with their timings that they stop enjoying the run. A high-altitude marathon is to be enjoyed and experienced. I was constantly telling myself to slowdown,” says Chillar. 

The warm-up for high altitude is also slightly longer. After all, your body takes longer to get ready than it would at sea-level. The cool down, similarly, can take longer since you will not get as much oxygen as you are used to. 

“Another key difference between running on a plain surface and on inclines is adjustment of stride length. You have to adjust them in such a manner so that the perceived effort remains same to achieve better performance,” points out Bhambhu.

Other factors that may impact your run include your hydration and food choices. High altitude can be dehydrating. It is advisable to drink water and/ or juices beginning from when you travel to your race city/ town. Alcohol and caffeine can also be dehydrating as well as work as diuretics. Limit them as much as possible. The regular, carb-heavy food is good enough even in high altitude areas. 

That said, there is a benefit to high altitude training. Which is why many elite racers travel to attend high-altitude training camps, or run with special masks that mimic running at hilly areas. They expose their body to the altitude to acclimatize. After a point, the body starts to produce the hormone, Erythropoietin, which stimulates the production of red blood cells. Training at higher altitudes (between 6,000-10,000 feet) has even been compared to legal doping, because of its ability to boost this oxygen carrying red blood cells. 

“When they compete at lower altitudes, they get a natural boost to the muscles when additional oxygen is available. This blood expanding effect can enhance performance in elite athletes by 1 to 2 percent. While that sounds like a tiny improvement, it can be the difference between missing the final cut for a competitive team and earning a medal,” explains Dr Benjamin D. Levine, Professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center. 

Whether the average runner can actually benefit from high altitude training is yet to be decided. But for anyone who is just training for a few weeks in higher altitude, it is more likely to be just a different experience (and not a great training benefit). That doesn’t mean one should not prepare for it. Just that be aware of how your body reacts to the lower oxygen availability and be prepared for a slower time. Enjoying a hill run starts from there. 

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