How Altitude Affects Running And Racing Performance

EndurElite Chief Endurance Officer Matt Mosman discusses how altitude affects the performance of distance runners and sprinters and what these athletes can do to perform better at higher elevations.

Full Video Transcription:

Ever wonder how altitude affects your running and racing performance? That is what we're going to discuss today, but before we get to that, let's discuss how altitude is classified and basically, it's broken into four different zones.

What Is Considered High Altitude?

  • So starting with 5,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, this is kind of considered low altitude or just altitude in general.
  • Then you go from 8,000 to 12,000 feet above sea level, and this is considered high altitude.
  • 12,000 to 18,000 feet above sea level is considered very high altitude.
  • 18,000 feet and above is considered extremely high altitude.

The Partial Pressure Of Oxygen Decreases At Higher Altitudes

Now, if there's one thing I want you to remember from this video, it's this, whether you are at the bottom of Death Valley or the top of Mount Everest, the percentage of oxygen in the air is the same.

What's different is the partial pressure of oxygen.

Now, what does this mean? As you go up in elevation or altitude, the partial pressure of oxygen decreases. This basically means there's less oxygen to breathe in.

Now, why is this important? Well, let's look at the first example of how altitude affects running and racing performance. Let's look at long distance running.

How Altitude Effects Long Distance Runners

Now, as a long distance runner, altitude kind of sucks because it is going to negatively impact your racing or endurance performance.

And this is because of the decrease in the partial pressure of oxygen.

Now long distance running being highly aerobic in nature requires oxygen to fuel muscular contractions via oxidative metabolism. So at altitude, you're not getting as much oxygen, your kind of oxidative metabolism isn't quite efficient and you are gonna suffer depending on the altitude you're at.

Well, maybe that's a little facetious, but it's not gonna feel quite as comfortable when you're running at sea level.

How Running Pace Is Affected At Altitude

So as a long distance runner, running altitude depending on how high you are, you're gonna run about 8 to 30 seconds slower per mile because of that decrease of the partial pressure of oxygen and not getting as much oxygen to power oxidative metabolism.

How Altitude Affects Sprinters And Performance

So if you're a sprinter, you're gonna love altitude because with altitude and as you go up, the atmospheric pressure decreases.

This means less air resistance and with less air resistance, you run faster.

And then also as a sprinter, you're relying on your ATP PC system, which doesn't require oxygen.

So the decrease in the partial pressure of oxygen won't effects sprinters hardly at all, and you are just gonna fly.

I mean this is why you saw a lot of records being broken in the 1968 summer Olympics in Mexico City where the elevation was at 7,300 feet.

So all the distance runners were suffering and all the sprinters were loving it.

How Long Distance Runners Can Prepare For Races At Altitude

So if you're a long distance runner, what can you do to kind of lessen the negative impact of say, racing at altitude? Well, if you're getting ready for a race at altitude and you're not acclimated, the best things you can do, well, one of two things.

One, you can show up about a day or two before the race.

The research has demonstrated that this will kind of lessen the negative impact of the altitude.

The second thing you can do and on the polar opposite of showing up a day or two before is showing up about four weeks before so your body can kind of get acclimated to altitude.

And what's gonna happen during this time is your red blood cell count is gonna go up, mitochondrial density will go up, capillary density will go up, and a lot of other physiological things will happen, which I'll link a video below discussing those physiological changes when you stay at altitude.

So that is all I have for today on how altitude affects your running and racing performance as a long distance runner and as a sprinter.

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And until next time my endurance friends, stay fueled, stay focused, stay fast and stay informed.