Adjusting Your Running for Altitude
Have a question about running? You're in the right place. Every Tuesday, world-renowned coach, author and athlete Hal Higdon posts and answers athlete questions here. You can submit your question by joining the discussions on Hal Higdon's Virtual Training Bulletin Boards.
Normally I live at sea level, but as training for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon begins, I will be at altitude (5,400 feet) for the first 6-7 weeks. I know I'm not going to be able to run "normal" distances when I get there. Any adjustments you can recommend so I can move forward with my training?
I don’t consider 5,400 feet (somewhat under 2000 meters) as that difficult—particularly for long distance runners, who function at a relatively low aerobic level: 65-75%. One of my best races was a second place in the Denver Marathon behind an African runner. Okay, he was from Nigeria, but still. Coming from Chicago, I was hardly altitude-trained, but do not recall it holding me back that much.
You’ll do fine. Here’s what to expect. Arriving at altitude, you’ll feel okay, out of breath somewhat, for maybe the first 36 hours, then expect to crash, oxygen-carrying red corpuscles bottoming out 72 hours after you arrive. So don’t plan any hard runs during your first week. After that, you should begin a gradual ascent to a point where you are fully acclimated after three weeks. That allows you 3-4 weeks of high altitude training, which might allow you to return to sea level with your blood supercharged. Of course, your altitude advantage probably will have faded by the Chicago Marathon, but you weren’t planning to win the race, were you? Only to run good, and you should do that.
As for the specifics of training, don’t measure distance. Run for about the length of time it would have taken you to run the prescribed number of miles back at sea level. If you start to gasp for breath, that’s a signal that you are going too fast. Solution: Slow down! Altitude training is as much mental as physical, so enjoy the scenery as you run through the mountains.