Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Altitude - How Important Is It?

Altitude - How Important Is It?

Moments after stepping outside of DIA the other day I was greeted to a cool, crisp Colorado evening. I was home. Yes, back in Colorado, where the air is dry and I don't end my run with soaking shorts and shoes. So happy to be back home after 8 weeks living on a tropical island at sea level. To test myself (and to deny any idea of jet lag after a 16 hour travel day), I headed right out onto the trails to see how much the altitude would impact me and to see if any of my running camp training would translate. I landed late Wednesday night, and early Thursday morning was my first run. I went up and did the usual Apex outer loop, which is 8.5 miles and 1,900' of gain. Despite traveling all the previous day (and dealing with crappy airport food) I went out with a positive attitude, if not a bit tired. I felt strong in the legs, and couldn't really tell if my lungs were working extra hard or not. When I tagged the top in :35 I was fairly surprised, as that was 30 seconds faster then my usual. I kept up a solid pace as I went back down and then up Hardscrabble and around Grubstake, pulling into the parking lot at 1:10. Wow, I was really happy with that given all of the circumstances. My average before leaving was 1:11. I thought I felt a little tightness in my chest towards the top of the run, but otherwise, I didn't feel the altitude too much. Odd? Maybe the speed work down on the island compensated for the change in altitude?

The following day I did a 9.5 mile tempo run with fartleks thrown in (4 x 60 seconds, 4 x 2:30) on North Table Mountain. The tempo portion felt great, but I really slowed on the fourth set of fartleks. I finished off with some more tempo and some bounding for a total time of 1:20. Decent, not fast, but with 1,500' gain I was happy. Still, was I feeling any effects of the altitude change? I couldn't really tell, but it didn't seem like it.

The next day I ran Bergen Peak from the rec. center doing the Bergen Peak race course. 13 miles, 2,500' of gain at 9,000' feet. I thought for sure I would feel some of the impact of the thinner air on this run, but happily pulled in back at the car right on 2 hours flat. Not a winning time by far, but considering all things, I was happy. I didn't feel any noticeable effects from the altitude.

Sunday was a track workout. My first on a real track ever! We ran the Bell school lap in Golden. After 3 miles of warmup, I did 4x400 and 4x800. I felt tired and slow, and could only manage a 1:28 for the 400 and a 3:23 for the 800. Terribly slow, but since I've never run on a track and actually tried these distances, I figured that was a good baseline to work from (and I have a LOT of work to do here). 10 miles on the day.

Monday was another go at Apex prior to work, which meant using the headlamp. Tired and sluggish, as well as running a bit slower due to the darkness. Only mustered 1:15 for 8.5 miles and 1,900' gain. I think running with the headlamp slowed me down a touch, and I was feeling the week, but no tightness in the chest like on Thursday.

Today I wanted to get up high to really see how I would do at altitude. Decided to run up Grays and Torreys from Bakersville. Running from Bakersville adds 6 miles round trip and 1,600' of gain, making the full run from Bakersville up and tagging both summits 14.5 miles and 5,300' of gain. I was sure I would get nailed on this run, struggling with the thin air. However, despite having to speed hike a large chunk as well as having to take it slow up and down the last 500' due to a thick layer of ice across the rocks from last night's rain/snow, I did a car-to-car time of 3:30 flat. I didn't really feel any extra strain in the lungs, although the legs were a bit tired from working yesterday. Still, I was expecting more difficulty from the altitude.

So, what gives? I know you loose your acclimation to altitude after two weeks, with a drop in the overall red blood cell count, and that it takes around two weeks for your body to rebuild those red blood cells, but I've only been back from sea level for 5 days. So, did all of the speed work compensate for the lack of altitude? Did my V02max go up as a result of the speed work and allow me to not notice the altitude? I don't know, as I was really expecting to have a couple weeks of re-acclimatization. Is there a time delay, and will I be dragging my feet all next week? It's interesting to me, and I do think that the speed work really helped in some way. I guess it shows just how important speed work is, no matter what kind of runner you are, or whether you train at sea level or altitude.
Rainbow from our condo - back in Colorado!
 Ice on Torreys from Grays.


  1. Probably highly varied per person, where you were born, how long you lived here, level of exertion, altitude, etc.

    Still think it is one of the lesser understood physiological stressors for endurance athletes ... but we probably have most of it figured out.

    Interesting you posted this when a guy put up a 4:48 mile on the top of Pikes Peak today.

    1. I agree, but I still was expecting to feel it a bit more. Thanks for the video link - cool race! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VPPwQpinGU&feature=player_embedded

  2. Welcome back! Sounds like you did not miss a beat.