All the best endurance athletes in the world have one thing in common. They all train at altitude. The Kenyans, for example, live at 7000 ft year round in the Rift Valley and others travel for months at a time to certain locations such as Flagstaff, Mammoth Lakes, or Parks City. It is scientifically proven to improve performance as it stimulates the bodies production of the hormone EPO–which allows the body to produce a greater quantity of red blood cells and thus enhancing endurance. However, going to altitude places higher demands on the body and requires specific changes in lifestyle and training to avoid breaking down the body.
The biggest way to break down you body at altitude is to try to train the same way you do at sea level. Your easy run pace at altitude needs to be made substantially slower than it normally is as your body needs to work much harder to run that pace with the lack of oxygen. Some runners take it by feel but I always encourage the use of a GPS watch to keep you grounded to your slower pace. It may take a couple days to notice that you are running to fast but once you are in the tank, it is already too late. Therefore you need to be discipline to a slower pace and not worry about the benefit, because no matter what pace you do, you are getting faster than you would be at sea level. If you are unsure about what pace you should run it is a good idea to wear a heart rate monitor on your easy runs. The goal should be to prevent your heart rate from exceeding 160 bpm no matter how slow that means you have to run. If you don’t use a heart rate monitor the talk test works too, just never be running too fast on an easy run that you are too out of breath to talk.
When it comes to workouts a similar approach should be taken. While I don’t think you should run workouts during the first couple of weeks as your body is still acclimating, there is a place for harder runs later in the training cycle. These workouts however should not be intervals or hard tempo runs, they should be limited to “by feel” type of workouts such as fartleks and progression runs. You should not worry about pace in these workouts but rather focus on feeling good and getting a nice hard effort in.
A nice addition that can be made to training at altitude is supplementals such as core work and strength work. The reason these help is that you can go pretty much as hard as you want to here without risking overdoing it and ending up burnt out. While these are not necessary, they are nice to let you feel like you are working hard since the runs should not be overly strenuous.
Your life needs to be different at altitude. Everything from diet to recovery takes on a different approach. By far the most important thing to do it make sure your body has the right ingredients to make these ever sought after red blood cells. Those ingredients are as follows: Iron and B vitamins (especially folate and b12). Lets start with iron. It is nearly impossible to get sufficient iron through diet alone to satisfy these needs so I suggest supplementing with ferrous sulfate pills. These can be taken several times a day. To maximize absorption of your iron you should take your pills with orange juice and avoid eating anything with calcium within an hour of your iron pills. Coffee, tea, egg yolks, and fiber may also limit absorption so be caution with these as well. Red meat also provides a great source of iron and the best part about this is that it is already highly absorbable for your body. Whats more about red meat is that it is one of the only dietary sources of vitamin b12 which is essential for the creation of red blood cells. Make sure to stock up on your red meat at altitude as it will fuel your improvement. 4 ounces a day should be sufficient on top of your supplementation. However, we are still missing folate which is an essential component for red blood cells. For this we need to look to vegetables and legumes. Beans, peanuts, spinach, and bell peppers all have great levels of folate so just choose whichever you enjoy the most!
Also important to realize at altitude is that since your body is working harder just to breath you will burn significantly more calories. Therefore if you wish to stay energized you need to eat far more. I do not mean you should run out for Mcdonalds everyday, you can on occasion, but simply eat more high quality carbs and protein to make sure your body can recover and replenish itself. Protein especially is important to make sure you are not losing your muscle mass as the altitude burns up all your calories. And as far as alcohol goes, it needs to be avoided at altitude. It can wreck an athlete as your body is already working so hard to acclimate and alcohol inhibits recovery and furthermore, the altitude magnifies its effects.
Next you need to worry about water and hydration. The dry air coupled with the increase in breathing causes you to lose water much quicker at altitude. You need to drink significantly more water at elevation and make sure you are replenishing electrolytes. It’s not a bad idea to drink other such fluids such as gatorade or chocolate milk as these not only replace the water you lost but the electrolytes as well.
Fruits and vegetables are also a must at altitude for their antioxidant properties. Your body produces more waste products at altitude and therefore there are more free radicals in your blood. Eating more foods with antioxidants helps the body rid itself of these free radicals and thus you are able to recover properly. Without this you are subject to injury and illness, both of which will negate any altitude benefits you hope to acquire.
Something that also should not be overlooked is the benefit of sleep for recovery. You may find yourself more tired at altitude and don’t be afraid to cater to this urge. Take naps! Go to bed at 7 oclock if you are tired. When your body is working that hard you need to let it recover.
If you follow all these guidelines you will come down from altitude fitter and stronger than you have ever been in the past. Whether you are there for weeks or months the benefits will be extraordinary. You just need to make sure to listen to your body and not push it past where it wants to go. Some people say altitude is worst between days 2 and 7, others say day 4 is the worst, but the truth is everyone’s bodies handle it differently therefore don’t get caught up in what others are doing, and listen to what your own body is telling you.