Altitude and Its Effect on Running Paces

Most runners intuitively understand that altitude has an effect on training and running paces.  Those fortunate enough to live and train at high altitude can expect performance gains when racing at lower altitudes.  On the other hand, those who live and train at lower altitudes will experience slower race times when racing at higher altitudes.

I’m no exercise physiologist, nor do I play one on television, but Jack Daniels, one of the preeminent running coaches in the world, has done altitude and performance-related research and has determined that going from sea level to 5000 feet will reduce paces by approximately 10 to 20 seconds per mile.  Conversely, runners can expect an increase in pace of the same amount when going training at 5000 feet and racing at sea level.

My personal experience with training at altitude confirms that these estimates are very close, for me, at least.  I live and train in Albuquerque (5000 feet in elevation), but I travel frequently to Dallas (500 feet in elevation) to visit family and friends.  I occasionally race in Dallas, but mostly just continue doing training runs for upcoming races.  I have noticed that when running at the pace that “feels” like a normal, easy training run, about 9:30 pace, when I glance at my watch, I’m actually running at a 9:15 pace.

Advantages of Altitude Training

Altitude training causes the body to create new red blood cells in an attempt to increase oxygen supply to muscles.  These additional red blood cells help transport more oxygen to working muscles when returning to sea level.

On a personal note, I don’t know that this creates enormous performance benefits FOR RECREATIONAL RUNNERS.  For elite, professional athletes hoping to improve by seconds, perhaps.  But for most recreational runners, I think this is a pretty small effect.

Would the physiological improvements produce better performance than the ability to train harder at sea-level? For average runners, probably not.  I always enjoy racing at sea level because it feels easier, but I can’t compare to a race where I have trained harder at sea level.

Disadvantages of Altitude Training

There is one major disadvantage to training at altitude…lack of training intensity.  At altitude, you are essentially training at a percentage of your sea level maximum, which effects the intensity that can be held at sustained high-intensity paces, such as tempo pace and interval paces.

If you live at alititude and are training for a sea-level race, you must incorporate some training at the pace you intend to run at sea-level.  You won’t be able to maintain this pace for as long as you could at sea-level, but you need to get your legs accustomed to the turnover rate of this pace.

Train High, Race Low

Runners who live at high altitudes and are preparing for a race at lower altitudes should keep these points in mind while training:

  • Training intensities will be similar but training paces will be slower.  Ensure that you do some training runs at your predicted low altitude pace to help you learn what the correct pace feels like.
  • Intensity level compared to pace will feel “out of sync”.  I have to tell myself that I am not going out too fast.  Remember, you only get a 10 to 20 second pace bump…if you find yourself going out faster than that, then you probably are going out too fast.

Train Low, Race High

If you live low and are running a race at a higher altitude, here are a few things to remember:

  • Your breathing will feel labored, even at a slower pace.  A few short runs prior to your race should help you get accustomed to the increased breathing rate.
  • True altitude acclimation takes weeks to occur but you can improve your results by arriving 2 to 3 days before the event.  You can expect about a 10% decrease in performance upon arriving, but this can be reduced to a 6% reduction in performance by arriving a few days early.