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September 17th, 2021

I Tried Altitude Training So You Don’t Have To

by Gerard Connelly

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a “mountain person” rather than an “ocean person,” preferring the sheer mass of a tall peak, the steep faces, and ominous forests to the blank horizon that is the ocean – all this, despite growing up on Long Island, surrounded by the water. It was growing up on Long Island however that I discovered this sport called Track and Field in the 10th grade, both as an athlete, and a spectator. Around the same time I started competing, I also watched my first track meet on television: none other than the 2012 Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Oregon. Watching that particular meet mixed very well with my own newfound interest in the sport and what resulted was a perfect storm which allowed me to blossom into a full-fledged running nerd for the years to follow.

Even though I considered myself a miler back then, I was particularly fascinated by the 5,000m and 10,000m runners. USA’s Galen Rupp was a dominant force at the time, and my favorite run of his career was when he sprinted past the strongest East Africans in the world to claim a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics 10,000m final. But I wondered, why was this so impressive? What made these East Africans so elusive? And what (sanctioned) training tactics did Galen Rupp pursue in order to accomplish this feat?

Upon closer examination, the one training element that I discovered was consistent amongst all of these fast runners is that they all spend time training at altitude.

What’s that, future Gerard? You can spend time training in the most beautiful places in the world AND you get more bang for your buck? 

That’s right, 15-year-old Gerard, and eight years from now, you’ll have some time, some savings, and enough courage to drive yourself 40 hours across the country to live for two months in the small city of Flagstaff, Arizona situated at 7,000ft in the sky to prepare for your first marathon, the Philadelphia Marathon in November.

What follows is the story of how I spent my summer in Flagstaff, alternately titled, “I Tried Altitude Training So You Don’t Have To.”

So why did I choose Flagstaff?

I started my altitude-question by narrowing it down to three places: Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Mammoth Lakes, California. I’ve been to Boulder before, and it’s only at 5,000ft. That may sound high, but the atmosphere there is made up of 17.3% Oxygen (compared to the 20.9% Oxygen content I was used to at sea level). I wanted even less! Mammoth Lakes is situated at nearly 9,000ft which is really high. The air up there is made up of only 14.8% Oxygen, and at that height, workouts become unreasonably hard and you risk overtraining. So that left me with Flagstaff with its perfect altitude of 7,000ft and 16.0% Oxygen. As an added bonus, I also had the opportunity to explore some bucket list places: The Grand Canyon, Sedona, and many of the other National Parks in that area. Flagstaff is located in the Coconino National Forest which is the largest pine forest in the world and has literally thousands of miles of trails to explore. Also, Flagstaff sits at the foot of the Kachina Peaks Wilderness which has the tallest mountains in Arizona. As somebody who grew up with a fascination for mountains and wilderness, I figured that Flagstaff, which has generally cool dry temperatures all summer, would be the best place to train hard, explore wilderness, and stay healthy.

Let’s finally get to the question you’re probably wondering: how did it feel to train at 7,000ft?

To be totally honest, it wasn’t terrible. Of course, the first 2-3 weeks while I was acclimating had some tough moments. On my first few easy runs, my quads and lungs would start burning at the smallest hint of an incline. Running a 7:30/mile pace (roughly 2:45 slower than my 5k pace at sea level) could easily turn into a stomach churning zone-3 run at a moment’s notice. But generally speaking, the mild summer weather (usually 65-75 degrees with 20-40% humidity) made for some very pleasant running most mornings. I’m accustomed to oppressive humidity on the East Coast, so the cool and dry temps counteracted the high elevation to some degree. Not to mention the beautiful scenery and soft trails at my disposal. It was very hard to not feel good most days as long as I adjusted my effort/pace accordingly.

Speaking of East Coast humidity, a lot of my friends back home were wondering if altitude is really harder than humidity. And my honest answer (and personal opinion) is that altitude is definitely easier… but you can also feel that the altitude definitely gets you more aerobically fit. The best way I can describe the difference is that humidity teaches your body how to handle stress more efficiently, while altitude teaches your body how to consume oxygen more efficiently. Both make you stronger, but in different ways. Also, you have to remember that heat/humidity decreases at night, while altitude does not. In a perfect world, I would choose to spend the winters at altitude and the summers in humidity. I can also tell you that my first few weeks back in New York in the beginning of August were significantly more terrible for me than recent summers past. My body was used to perfect weather, so my training actually suffered quite a bit while adjusting back to the humidity.

I also feel I should point out that the reason runners seek out altitude isn’t just to run at altitude, but to recover at altitude. A common misconception amongst all runners (at all altitudes) is that you are only gaining fitness during your run. “I just finished that daunting long run! I must be in better shape right now, right!?” Not quite, and the work isn’t done yet. In a way, the work has just begun. After a hard session, to recover, your body needs protein, carbs, fat, water, electrolytes, sleep, naturally occurring hormones, soft tissue work, active mobility, etc. But above all else, your body needs Oxygen. Without most of these vital ingredients, you simply won’t ever recover or improve after that long run. The more of these ingredients you have, the quicker and more efficiently you will recover and improve. If you have fewer of these ingredients, you may not recover or improve enough, and a consistent lack of recovery is what usually leads to overtraining (which is why you may hear people refer to “overtraining” as “under recovering”). While training at altitude, the lack of oxygen forces your body to become more dependent on the other ingredients. For me, that played out as feeling like I really needed a nap after most runs, and craving carbs all the time. Honey, maple syrup, pancakes, oatmeal, etc. I became a big fan of really sugary horchata after runs. You name it, I was scarfing it down. 

So altitude obviously makes recovery harder, but how does altitude make you faster? After spending a few months at altitude with a lack of oxygen, your body goes through a process where it creates more red blood cells to compensate for the fact that there is less oxygen in the air. Since red blood cells are responsible for carrying oxygen from the lungs to the muscles via blood vessels, endurance-based activities become a lot easier after returning to sea level after a few months at altitude. Two months is the standard amount of time it takes to get any long term biological benefit from altitude training. With all of this to consider while training at altitude, I became humbly aware of the patience and persistence you need to have while marathon training. Depending on your training, sometimes it can take days, weeks, or months to feel fully recovered, which is why it’s best to constantly remind yourself of your long term goals. 

The longest run I did during my summer in Flagstaff was a 19 miler at just under 6:30 pace (and here is where I will brag about how I had the pleasure of joining Olympic Marathon Bronze Medalist Molly Seidel for this run. She casually dropped me around mile 15 of 22, topping off one of many 135 mile weeks that she ran this summer). This particular long run, on some brutal rolling hills with sandy and rocky terrain, absolutely kicked my butt. But the run wasn’t even the hardest part. The hardest part was the week after the run, when I did everything in my power to provide my body with enough of the aforementioned recovery ingredients to feel ready, refreshed, and improved for my next workouts and long runs. I did accomplish that, and with a daily schedule that consisted of napping, eating a lot, and browsing the internet for jobs (at least that last part panned out!), it was easy to make time for recovery.

As for where I am now, did I actually get more bang for my buck?

Short answer, definitely. Long answer, it’s complicated. Right now, about 1 month after returning to sea level, I am definitely still feeling some super powers. I found myself easily breathing exclusively through my nose during an 8 mile tempo run last week. I kept my heart rate relatively low at my goal marathon pace, which was cool considering I ran a hard 20-miler two days prior. But the best thing about it is that I felt fully recovered from that tempo run just 24 short hours later. For the same reason altitude made my body better at running, it also made it better at recovering from running. I feel like I can take on more training at sea level without the risk of overtraining. With that said, I’m fairly certain that my fitness will probably “reset” after I eventually and gladly take time off from running for a few weeks after my marathon. It’s been a nice bonus to increase mileage and intensity without fear of overtraining (especially while starting a new job and moving into a new city, so recovery inevitably gets put on the back burner), and who knows how long my red blood cell count will be up, but I’m sure that eventually I will be back to the reality of mouth-breathing during tempo runs.

As great as the experience was, would I do it again? Probably not. If I ever go back to the mountains, it’ll probably be for a much shorter amount of time, and I will be much more focused on hiking and adventuring. After the marathon, I will continue living the life of an amateur athlete who works full-time while training full-time, so I don’t know if I’ll ever have two months to spend in training paradise again. After everything that I learned about the recovery process this summer, I’ve realized that it would be a lot easier and cheaper to just spend some extra time and focus on getting to bed earlier and eating more carbs and protein after hard runs.

But was it worth it?

Definitely! It was an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. I made some really great friends, many of whom were doing the exact same thing that I was. I got to see the Grand Canyon, I climbed the tallest mountain in Arizona, I drove across the United States by myself, and the list goes on. While it’s cool that my body contains a few more red blood cells now so I can train harder leading up to my marathon, it’s even cooler that I successfully lived “the dream” for a summer without putting myself in debt.

If you’re reading this because you’re curious about experiencing altitude training for yourself, and you have the time, the money, and the inclination to take a shot on yourself, I say go for it! You don’t need to be a professional runner to take your training seriously, you just need to enjoy taking it seriously. Happy running!

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