Can Running at Altitude Help My Marathon?

Running at altitude is tough: with less oxygen in the air and a higher risk of dehydration, you’ll inevitably run slower.

A photo posted by Jason Fitzgerald (@jasonfitz1) on

Just consider that you sweat and exhale twice the amount of fluid at 6,000 feet altitude than you do at sea level! With lower humidity and air pressure, evaporation is increased from both your skin and mouth.

And at the same 6,000 feet altitude, there’s about 20% less oxygen in the air!

But these drawbacks are often outweighed by the advantages of altitude training. The primary benefit is increased red blood cell production, leading to more efficient oxygen delivery to hard-working muscles (through EPO).

This adaptation will essentially allow you to exercise harder, for longer, with less effort.

There’s a reason most professional distance runners spend a few weeks (or longer) at “altitude camps” every year. Training at higher elevations has very real benefits to your performance.

But like nearly everything, there’s a point of diminishing returns. While training at 7,000 feet (the elevation of Flagstaff, Arizona – a popular elite training camp location) can help your running, you don’t want to attempt workouts at Everest’s Base Camp.

At altitudes above about 15,000 feet you run into a host of problems:

  • You won’t be able to run as fast – and this reduced training intensity can compromise overall fitness and race performance
  • Loss of appetite is common, leading to reduced recovery and energy to complete demanding workouts
  • Recovery is hampered at the cellular level (your body just isn’t as efficient in a low oxygen environment)
  • Altitude sickness is more common, making exercise virtually impossible.

But most of us aren’t training in the Himalayan mountains. Instead, we’re at modest elevations of 2,000 – 7,000 feet.

And this spectrum of effectiveness also extends in the other direction as well: if you want the benefits of training at altitude, you have to be at a sufficient elevation. Running at 500 feet altitude simply won’t cut it!

So, at what altitude does the elevation start to become helpful for your running?

Q&A with Coach #23: Marathon Training at Altitude

Adam submitted his question on Twitter (you can follow me here). He has an upcoming marathon and he’s able to run some of his training at a modest altitude.

Here’s his question:

Will running my long runs at 2,000 feet or slightly higher be beneficial for my upcoming marathon?

Episode 23 of Q&A with Coach has the answer:

Show Notes:

:30 – Let’s start the shooowww!
1:15 – Is 2,000 feet considered high altitude?
1:25 – Why is running at altitude so hard?
2:10 – The minimum altitude needed to experience benefits
2:35 – The preferred altitude for elite training camps
3:35 – What would Jason do in Adam’s situation?
3:40 – Pacing advice for modest altitudes
4:15 – Should you run all of your runs at altitude if you have the choice?
5:15 – The importance of pace work
5:50 – The “mix and match” approach

If you’re training for a marathon, be sure to listen to my interview with Coach Jay Johnson on sound marathon training.

Is simulating high altitude worth it?

All this talk of training at high altitude begs the question: if you’re at sea level, can you mimic the effects of altitude running?

And you sure can!

There are a few options, but the most accessible is to wear an elevation training mask. These elevation masks increase respiratory resistence, which is a fancy way of saying it’s like lifting weights for your lungs.

While I’ve never used one (living in Denver, why would I need it?!), many brands are supported by clinical research and hold multiple patents.

Considering they’re a bargain at well under $100 (an altitude training tent requires a special generator and can cost more than $4,000), they’re a fun toy to play with if you don’t mind looking like Bane.

But for most of us, running at altitude is something we’ll either never experience or will only encounter during a brief vacation.

And more importantly, the benefits of high altitude training are typically small enough that recreational runners shouldn’t even consider these fancy toys.

You’re better off running more consistently, staying healthy, improving your nutrition, and gradually running higher mileage.

Those are the big wins of training that produce faster runners.

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