Tips to improve running performance at high elevations.
One of the toughest challenges runners can face is completing all of their training at their low-elevation residences, then traveling to compete in a race at high altitude (above 5,000 feet). At elevations above 5,000 feet, the “thin air” factor begins to have a measurable effect on endurance performance. At 8,000 feet, for instance, the barometric pressure is twenty-five percent lower than it is at sea level—meaning you get 25 percent less oxygen per breath than you get at sea level.
Fortunately, there are some effective measures you can use to limit the negative effects of thin air on your racing performance. Admittedly, some of these tips are more practical than others. But any one of them—or any combination of them—can assist you in preparing to race at high altitude and help ensure you get the most out of your training.
Arrive really early. Athletes who live at high altitude perform better in that environment than athletes of equal fitness who live close to sea level. That’s because the body adapts to the lower air pressure at altitude by producing more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Those, like elite marathoner Ryan Hall, of Big Bear, California, who are born and raised at high altitude have the greatest advantage, but the body can make measurable progress in adapting to high altitude in a matter of days. How early would you have to arrive at your high-altitude race in order to see an improvement in your performance? Unfortunately, research shows that it takes at least two weeks to acclimate to high altitude sufficiently to see a performance benefit.
Make your own thin air. A more convenient alternative to arriving at the site of your high-altitude race two weeks early is using a hypoxic generator. These machines simulate a high-altitude environment by generating reduced-oxygen air, which the user breathes through a mask or inside a special tent. Because it is necessary to breathe hypoxic air for several hours a day to enjoy the same physiological adaptations that come with living at high altitude, most owners of hypoxic generators choose to sleep inside the tent nightly. This equipment isn’t cheap, with the least expensive generators costing roughly $2,500. But some companies offer short- and long-term rentals. For example, you can rent a unit from Higher Peaks for two months for $699.
Supplement with green tea extract. As mentioned, the primary cause of reduced endurance performance at high altitude is the inability of the body to supply the muscles with as much oxygen as it can at sea level. But there is also a secondary cause, which is increased production of free radicals by the working muscles. And there is a simple, scientifically proven way to address this secondary cause of reduced performance at high altitude: Take an antioxidant-rich green tea extract supplement.
A study by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas found that cycling time trial performance at simulated altitude was significantly improved when subjects took a green tea extract capsule one hour before exercise. Don’t expect to get the same results from drinking green tea, though, as a single green tea extract capsule contains as much catechins (the primary type of antioxidant in green tea) as about 12 cups of green tea.
Consider sodium bicarbonate. One of the body’s early responses to high-altitude exposure is increased respiration, which increases blood pH. This in turn reduces the capacity of the muscles to buffer acids produced during exercise and thus reduces exercise capacity. One of the muscles’ main acid buffers is sodium bicarbonate—that’s right, plain old baking soda. A recent Korean study showed that consuming sodium bicarbonate before exercise boosted time trial performance in cyclists during acclimation to high altitude. Recommended dosage is 0.2 to 0.4 gram per kilogram of bodyweight before exercise. Be aware, however, that possible side effects include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Check out Matt’s book, Racing Weight Quick Start Guide: A 4-Week Weight-Loss Plan for Endurance Athletes.