Training for a High Altitude Marathon

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 | By Hal Higdon
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Training for a High Altitude Marathon

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.


I am a novice runner contemplating running the Yellowstone Half Marathon next June. While I know I have ample time to train for the distance, living near sea level I have no idea how to train for high altitude. What do you suggest?


Checking the race website, most of the West Yellowstone course is at about 6,700 feet with a bump up to 6,901 feet in the middle. That’s outside my comfort zone as well as the comfort zones of most low-altitude runners. Running is difficult at that level because of diminished oxygen in the air. It is even more difficult if you never have spent much time at high altitude before, for psychological as well as physiological reasons. Gasping for breath may confuse as well as distract you.

There is no easy way to train for altitude unless you train at altitude. You probably do not have either the time nor desire to fly to and from high altitude training camps like the elites do. If you enjoy downhill skiing, you might consider a ski vacation in the mountains this winter.

Here is the problem: Without going into too detailed a scientific explanation, the minute you step off the plane at altitude, the saturation of oxyhemoglobin in your blood begins to drop, bottoming out around 72 hours. Less oxygen to the muscles equals slower race times. The body reacts by building more oxygen-carrying red corpuscles, but that takes two or three weeks. Athletes train in high-altitude camps in hopes that they can increase the number of red corpuscles, but I’ve always thought the science on that was somewhat murky. For the best race results, you should arrange to be born and live at altitude, like the East Africans.

Thus if you want to do well at the Yellowstone Half Marathon, you have three choices: 1) Arrive at altitude three weeks before the race, which will allow your body time to adapt; or, 2) Arrive at altitude at the last possible minute, before your blood starts to crash, or, 3) Slow way, way down and forget about performance; the slower you go, the more time you will have to enjoy the scenery. And the less the lack of oxygen will bother you.

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