How Altitude Affects Running Performance
For most of us who live at or near sea level, traveling to a place with a higher altitude and going for a run can be extremely humbling. Not only does it feel much harder to run at a higher altitude, but it actually changes the way your body reacts to exercise.
If you plan to travel to a place with an altitude that’s significantly above sea level, you might wonder, “Is it harder to run at high altitude?” and “How long does it take to adjust?”
Here’s what you can expect when running at a higher altitude and how to prepare to train in a new environment.
How does high altitude affect runners?
There are a few key differences that occur when running at a higher altitude:
1. Your endurance suffers.
According to researchers, this is one of the most identifiable changes when you run at a higher altitude (at least 2,000 feet above sea level).1
Generally, our bodies struggle at higher elevations because there is less oxygen in the air. As a result, when you run at a higher altitude, your blood passes through your lungs without carrying as much oxygen as it usually does, decreasing VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and use during intense exercise.
Although a decreased VO2 max doesn’t always correlate with a drop in performance, researchers have found it true among people who run endurance or long-distance routes at higher altitudes.
One study examined the effects of running at high altitudes on eight endurance athletes. The researchers found for every thousand feet of elevation increase, starting at 1,000 feet above sea level, the athletes’ VO2 max dropped by 1.9%. The time it took for them to reach the point of exhaustion while running also decreased 4.4% per 1,000 feet of altitude.2
2. Your speed slows.
Similarly, with less oxygen in the air, you can expect to run a little slower at higher altitudes. Your cardiovascular system won’t function as well without oxygen, so don’t expect to flaunt your best running times the day you arrive in a location at a higher elevation.
3. You may feel sick.
Some runners also get acute mountain sickness (AMS) when they travel to locations at higher altitudes. It’s caused by reduced air pressure and oxygen levels.3
Starting at around 6,500 feet above sea level, your likelihood of developing AMS increases. Most often, mild symptoms include:3
- Problems sleeping
- Poor appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid heart rate
- Shortness of breath while running, walking, or being active
AMS can also be more severe, causing symptoms like:3
- Bluish, gray, or pale complexion
- Chest tightness or congestion
- Mental confusion
- Coughing (sometimes coughing up blood, too)
- Inability to walk in a straight line (or at all)
- Shortness of breath while resting
These symptoms can occur within 6 to 10 hours of arriving at a higher elevation, but they don’t usually last longer than a few days. Depending on your tolerance to altitude and other factors, traveling to a high altitude may not affect you at all on one occasion, but you might experience symptoms on another occasion.
Is it harder to run at a higher altitude?
Yes, generally, the effects of a higher altitude can make it feel harder to run. This is mainly due to reduced air pressure and oxygen levels at higher altitudes.
Fortunately, as your body acclimates to a higher altitude, your red cell count will increase, pushing more oxygen into your muscles and tissues. If you give your body some time to adjust, it might start to feel easier to run at a higher altitude.
Tips for running at high altitude
Since running at a higher altitude can sometimes be challenging, the following tips can make it easier:
- Stay hydrated. The air is drier at higher elevations, increasing your likelihood of becoming dehydrated, especially while running and exercising.
- Increase your carb intake. Researchers found that at around 13,000 feet in elevation, every breath of air contains about 40% less oxygen than it does at sea level. Carbohydrates provide 15% more energy for the same amount of oxygen as fats, so eating more carbs will help you through more challenging high-altitude runs.4
- Take a few days to rest or walk before easing into running again. Giving your body time to adjust to the altitude before exercising may help prevent AMS and other related symptoms.5
- Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills. Alcohol slows your breathing and makes your breath more shallow, further limiting the amount of oxygen in your body.
- Limit caffeine. Caffeine is a diuretic that will increase your risk of dehydration while running.
If you experience altitude sickness when you arrive at a higher altitude, give your body time to rest and take over-the-counter or prescription medications to help alleviate any symptoms.
What are the benefits of high-altitude training?
Some elite endurance runners purposely train at higher altitudes to gain a competitive advantage. The idea is that by training at higher altitudes, your body acquires more red blood cells, which allows your blood to carry more oxygen. Then, when you compete at lower altitudes, you get an additional performance boost because more oxygen is pumped into your muscles during aerobic exercise.6
However, others argue the “live high, train low” approach is best, where elite athletes live at altitudes that are 7 to 8,000 feet above sea level but do most of their heavy endurance training at a lower altitude. With this approach, they’ll train where their muscles can work harder with the maximum amount of oxygen available.
For the average everyday runner, high-altitude training probably won’t make a huge difference in performance, but it can still be helpful. Even taking a short trip to a higher altitude has advantages because while training there, you’ll learn to tolerate more discomfort running with less oxygen. To build that same tolerance at sea level, you’d have to run faster or harder, putting additional strain on your joints and muscles.
Otherwise, if you want the thrill of running at a high-altitude location without all the altitude sickness, Vingo offers exciting virtual running routes worldwide. You only need a treadmill and a stable internet connection to get started.
Key Takeaways:Running at a higher altitude feels more difficult because the air is thinner and contains less oxygen. As a result, your body doesn’t have as much oxygen to pass to your muscles as they work. The tips above can help you have the best possible experience while running at higher altitudes, optimize your performance, and avoid uncomfortable symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS).
- Bärtsch, P., & Saltin, B. (2008). General introduction to altitude adaptation and mountain sickness. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 18, 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2008.00827.x
- Wehrlin, J. P., & Hallén, J. (2006). Linear decrease in .VO2max and performance with increasing altitude in endurance athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 96(4), 404–412. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-005-0081-9
- Acute mountain sickness: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000133.htm
- At high altitude, carbs are the fuel of choice. (2012, December 12). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121206121942.htm
- Travel to High Altitudes | Travelers’ Health | CDC. (n.d.). CDC.gov. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/travel-to-high-altitudes
- How high-altitude training can benefit elite endurance athletes like runners and swimmers | Heart | UT Southwestern Medical Center. (n.d.). https://utswmed.org/medblog/high-altitude-training/