How to prepare for a high-altitude race

By September 30, 2019 No Comments
mountain running

Image courtesy: Red Bull


When you are preparing for a high altitude race, the first thing you need to train is your mind, writes Deepthi Velkur.

“The mountains are calling, and I must go” – John Muir.

There is something humbling about the mountains. Maybe it’s the imposing presence it brings to life, but I think the most humbling part is the sense of achievement you get after you’ve scaled its highest peaks.

The mountains and the high altitudes while alluring also bring with it some of the world’s most extreme environments. For decades, adventurists have been taken in by its mystic charm but in the more recent past, its athletes who are giving in to the call of the mountains and forging new boundaries. But is it that easy to graduate from a road run to high-altitude running? I would think not – the physiological stress that comes with taking part in such a run requires a new dimension, in-depth training, and extensive preparation to meet the demands and ultimately remain safe.

Often for such races, runners tend to focus more on building speed rather than acclimatizing themselves. By doing this, they not only run the risk of a burnout due to added stress of the hypoxic (inadequate oxygen supply at the tissue level) environment but there is the real possibility that they could suffer from acute mountain sickness (AMS) causing headaches, vomiting, nausea and in some cases fatal, if not treated soon enough. These symptoms arise at high altitudes due to a drop in the oxygen levels in your blood as compared to sea level and further leads to the brain receiving less oxygen.

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Understanding what it means to run at high-altitudes

It’s important to note that the higher up you go, the less oxygen there is in the air making it difficult to breathe. This causes a decrease in the oxygen levels reaching the muscles and you could experience a high risk of dehydration as well. The reason being, at 6000m above sea level, we tend to exhale and perspire twice as much when compared to at sea level.

How does having less oxygen affect training?

With a decrease in oxygen levels, our body does the following:

  • Faster breathing to increase the production of oxygen,
  • An increase in the production of red blood cells to carry more oxygen,
  • Blood pressure and heart rate increase to push more oxygen,
  • Urination happens more frequently and blood thickens making the heart work harder.

As you climb up to higher altitudes, the body battles with decreased air pressure making it harder to breathe and you end up feeling more fatigued on your runs.

Here are a few tips and tricks

  • Acclimatization is very important – needs to be done at least 2 weeks before the race.
  • Drink plenty of water (4 – 6L) every day. Account for 1L every three hours.
  • Increase carbohydrate intake to 70% of total calories. Carbohydrates require less oxygen for the body to process and the body tends to use more carbohydrates for fuel when you reach high altitudes.
  • Consider walk breaks during your run
  • Slow down and enjoy a leisurely paced run as your heart-rate will be higher due to the body working hard to get the oxygen.
  • Avoid drinking alcohol as it leads to dehydration and the body is again expelling more water causing stress on the kidneys.
  • Maintain iron levels in your body as more iron is required due to more RBC’s produced. Eat iron-rich food such as greens and red meat along with Vitamin C that will help in absorption.
  • Include one hot meal a day that consists of rice, noodles or potato which can easily be digested.
  • Climb high and sleep low where you climb no more than 1000ft and include a rest day for every 3000ft of gain.
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Hopefully, these tips and tricks will inspire you to conquer your mountains, seize the day, and make the most out of every experience.


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Deepthi Velkur

Deepthi Velkur

Deepthi Velkur is a former sprinter who is trying her hand at various sports today. A tennis fanatic, who believes that sleep should never be compromised.