A Flatlander’s Training Tips for Altitude

This story originally appears in the March 2014 ATRA Newsletter.

By Herb Kieklak

This article is for all of us flatlanders who live at sea level or “nearabouts,” but aspire to run “at altitude.” If you live in Colorado or other big mountain places, this will only make you laugh, as y’all just have to walk out your front door to “train at altitude.”  I do not have the luxury of going out a week or two before a high-altitude race or buying one of those super-duper tents that mimic low-oxygen conditions. So, I decided to see what I could do to acclimate while living here in Florida. According to textbooks, people will start to notice a change in their breathing at 3,000 feet. Most runners and hikers say that is only if you are out of shape. Most likely, a runner will start to notice changes around seven kilometers while at altitude. At nine kilometers, you will feel a definite change even if in good shape. From my own recent experience as a low-altitude runner at high altitude, I would agree with this. There was a small change at 7K, but the sleepy feeling/fatigue/headaches all became noticeable at 9K.  I opted for two simple techniques while running at sea level to prepare for a high-altitude race: I used a mouthpiece to change my breathing and wore extra clothing to mimic altitude stress. My choice of these two methods was based on lots of anecdotal evidence from other runners and research on the myriad of websites advertising high-altitude products.  Then, after the first attempt in 2012, I did a little tweaking to training, but not the “adaptation method.”

Technique to change breathing
The idea of using a mouthpiece to change breathing while at sea level is  based on the premise that at high altitude you will have a lower oxygen saturation, so if you can improve your lung capacity/respiratory skills at a lower altitude your body will be used to breathing deeply and efficiently when you get to the mountains.  I picked this technique up from college swimmers, who used to train with snorkels that had the air pipe compromised to make them breathe harder in training.  It is the same idea as running with a weight vest and then taking it off for the race – except doing it for your lungs.

I decided to go with a standard mouthpiece and could notice a big difference in how much more I used diaphragmatic breathing. I had tried a double-bite mouthpiece with only a small hole cut in the center to really restrict airflow, but I found it was way too slobbery to use in public. I also looked at all those Darth Vader/ski mask type respirators, but I did not want to spend the money. I also thought they looked way too weird to use while running in town – no need to tempt a cop having a bad day. People didn’t seem to find the mouthpiece weird, and most people thought I used it for either a fear of falling or to avoid  grinding my teeth while running.  If I explained the real reason, I would get one of those blank looks and an “Oh, yeah,” response, and they would move away.

Technique to mimic altitude stress
This technique was easy to work with here in Florida. The idea is to stress your body with heat/humidity, as the blood will go to the surface and leave little for muscles and organs. Less blood means less oxygen, the same as being at high altitude. Seems like a fairly straightforward concept. The small detail is that overheating can be very, very bad for you with puking, passing out, etc., being some of the nicer side effects.  So I took to wearing long-sleeved shirts and gloves and running in midday while training. This earned me an even weirder reputation than the mouthpiece.  When the rest of the running group is either shirtless or wearing a sports bra only, wearing long sleeves and gloves tends to stand out a bit. Plus, in the summer, they are fanatical about running only in the wee hours of the morning.  Now I know how Rudolph felt.

Results in 2012
I ran in the Flagstaff Endurance Run, which goes up, down and around the San Francisco Peaks in Buffalo Park just outside of Flagstaff, AZ, in September, 2012. I arrived early on a Friday afternoon with the intention of using the “get in and get out” strategy as opposed to spending a week acclimating. I spent the afternoon walking/hiking around town and the park to get acquainted with the area and felt no effects of being at 7,000 feet. My biggest problem was a lack of sleep, as the hostel that I was staying at was within spitting distance from a late-night dance club with an outdoor deck.

The race started early the next day, and I got in with a group from Phoenix, and they were also doing the race for first time, but had much more experience with desert mountains. We ran/walked a cautious race. All seemed to be going well until I left the next-to-last aid station. From there, it was an eight-mile downhill and back up to the last stop and then homestretch. I was psyched because, even with a slow time, I felt good and had only a bit of a headache but none of the fatigue or dehydration that I had been warned about.  I was keeping up with original pack of semi-local runners. WHOO-HOO!

Then it all crept up on me. The downhill was very technical and my quads were screaming – now I know what all those stories in Trail Runner were about. My pacers were now way ahead; the sun was up and hot. I quickly drank all the water in my bottle plus the extra I was carrying in a pack. The next four miles back uphill seemed a nightmare. I was parched like never before, hot and miserable, and I had an overwhelming urge just to lie down and sleep. Somehow I managed to make it up to the top and collapsed at the aid station and asked for a ride to the bottom, as I was sure that I would pass out and get injured if I tried to keep running for the next downhill stretch. This was my first DNF! and at mile 26, no less.

Lessons Learned
1) Acclimate better – Next year, I would go one day earlier and hike more as per the advice of race director Nick Coury. And found a different place to stay, with a good night’s sleep!
2) Minimize time at the top – When I got down to the race finish line, I was amazed at how must better I felt. That was the aha! moment of realizing that the symptoms at 9,000 feet will go away when I get to lower altitude. This would be HUGE for shaping future training. Get stronger at climbing and somehow get better at downhills. The sooner I could get to lower elevation, the faster I would recover, with less of a chance of getting hammered.
3) Get used to being dehydrated – Sounds simple, but doing it was not pleasant. Plus, it was a mean combination with the heat stress training. But if you can adapt to being dehydrated and overheated, that is big plus in the world of ultramarathons.
4) Hydrate better – Drink lots more at each aid station, even if not feeling thirsty – again per the advice of race director Nick Coury. This would play off training technique number 2: If you train dehydrated and then on race day make sure to hydrate well at each aid station, your body will feel like it is being given the royal treatment.  A nice counterbalance to technical aspects and massive climbs that cannot be trained for in advance.
5) Train for the red zone –  I realized that all the trail running in Florida was doing zippo in terms of preparing me for desert mountains and running on rocks, especially downhill. So I began running at the local football stadium and using the bleachers instead of steps to go up/down. This made me take those big uncomfortable strides going up, and the coming down was impact after impact. My quads slowly got stronger and my body used to the pounding.
6) Resisted Breathing – Continue with resisted breathing (mouthpiece) and heat stress as they had helped me make it to mile 26 when everyone at the start of the race thought I would be a goner way before that point.

Results in 2013
In September 2013,  I ran the Flagstaff Endurance Run again and successfully completed the race with a decent time. I was the only person from the East Coast in the race. It is definitely possible to live at sea level and compete in high altitude events with a little ingenuity and dedicated training. The only variable – one of the biggest – was the scale of climbing/descending, plus the rocks. Here in Florida, the biggest hills/interstate bridges/etc. are just a fraction of the climbs on real mountains. Just as swimming in a pool is nice, it is not the same as the open water swim in a triathlon.

In the future, I would really like to do well in a high-altitude race as opposed to “just finishing.” As I plan my next race, I think it would be very beneficial to travel to a venue well in advance and get used to the terrain and altitude.  I think that the heat stress and breathing resistance are good but will only get you so far. Then the other tweaks are improving your speed and technical skills to minimize the time that you are “at altitude.”