Tips for the Trail – Running in High Altitude – Xterra – 7-15-2011

By Rachel Cieslewicz

published in Xterra 7/15/2011

My favorite time of year is the height of summer. What do I love about the glorious sunshine and long hot days? It means the snow is melting quickly off the high mountain peaks making way for epic mountain trail racing. For the past few years, I have had ample opportunity to enjoy racing the high mountains all through the West. While nothing quite compares to gazing down and out for miles from towering mountain peaks, there are important things to know about altitude so you can make sure to enjoy the experience.

Altitude can be difficult for people due to the lack of available oxygen to feed muscles.  The air becomes thinner as you climb elevation. In general, people will not suffer too much at elevations up to 6,500 feet, even if you’re coming from sea level. If they do feel it, it is often due to dehydration and not compensating for the dry air. At 7,000 feet and higher, the effects are felt more and more. Over 10,000 feet is often the point of no return for many as they gasp for breath as the entire body fights for the dismal supply of precious air.

It generally takes a minimum of three weeks to adapt to altitude. The higher you go, the longer it takes. A few opt for altitude tents, which they sleep in to mimic the low atmospheric pressure found up high.  As many don’t have access to these tents or month-long vacations before a race, there are ways to optimize your training to prepare for a high altitude race.

If you live at low elevation and in the heat, you are in luck. You have the advantage of stressing the body systems by training in the heat of the day. If your body is already adapted to training hard in a stressful environment, when you go to race at high altitude, you will be used to needing to be efficient.  I suggest implementing short hard hill intervals (1-2 minutes) to prepare the aerobic system and develop fast leg turnover. If possible, add in longer sustained hill climbs. Treadmills on a 7 to 15 percent incline, as much as I despise them, can be a lifesaver if your biggest hill is a causeway! There are a number of top athletes who follow this with success.

I personally live at 5,000 feet. Even though some say it is not an optimum elevation, I disagree. I have had a lot of success at high altitude. Here is how I do it. In preparation for my higher elevation XTERRA trail runs, I do one hard track workout each week.  This will consist anywhere from short intense 300 meter intervals, up to 1 mile repeats at threshold. I also train hills with a mixture of road and trail up to twice a week. Other than that, I hit the higher mountains to get used to stressing my body at the high elevations on either my bike or running, and do a longer road run with focus on proper breath, form and leg speed.  Unless racing, I typically don’t train higher than 9,500 feet.  This is because if you train too high, it is very difficult to get a quality workout in.

When heading to a race at high altitude, you generally have a 24 hour window before your body dives into adaptation mode dumping plasma and thickening the blood. Race day arrival times may have a huge effect on your performance.  Arrive the day before if possible. And don’t forget to stay and enjoy your hard effort in a beautiful mountain town.

The week before your race is time to take race preparation seriously.  Focus on a whole food diet with lots of greens, lean protein and cold pressed high quality fats. Hydration is huge. Drink 15 to 20 percent more water than normal each day. Be sure to get good electrolytes into your system to avoid hyponatremia. Other than that, sleep is imperative. Many have troubles sleeping well if they are not used to higher elevations. Before you head from home, sleep well each night and you will be fantastically prepared for race day.

Don’t let higher altitudes discourage you. Follow this advice and you will be surprised and delighted at your amazing abilities to perform well come race day!

A couple of upcoming XTERRA races will test runners at altitude. The first is the XTERRA Beaver Creek Trail Run, which will take place this Sunday, July 17, at the picturesque Beaver Creek Resort in Avon, Colo.

That event, which will feature separate 21-kilometer and 10-kilometer courses, will take runners to elevation points as high as 8,800 feet.

The other upcoming altitude event will be the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship at the Snowbasin Resort, Ogden, Utah, on Sept. 25. That event will test runners at elevations of more than 4,000 feet.

Both the Beaver Creek Trail Run and the Trail Run National Championship are open to runners of all ages and skill levels. For more information, please visit www.xterratrailrun.com.

Rachel Cieslewicz is an elite runner and triathlete based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She won the women’s division of the XTERRA Lake Las Vegas and Santa Cruz half-marathons this year, and placed fifth at the 2010 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship last December at Kualoa Ranch, Hawaii. She is a talented sports massage therapist, Pilates and yoga instructor and is a certified running form coach. She can be reached atrcanyon1@gmail.com  or visit her website atwww.newageathlete.comor follow her onwww.twitter.com/newageathlete.