Racing at altitude can be a daunting challenge for many runners, and for good reason. The higher you go, the harder it is to perform at an optimal level. So, if you are looking to perform up to your potential at altitude this upcoming summer, take a look at these general guidelines. With proper planning and execution of the following principles, you’ll be well on your way to success! Here’s to an incredible summer in the mountains!
The most prescribed ‘taper’ for a mountainous ultra-running event includes 3 weeks of significantly reduced training. This is the biggest mistake I see many runners make. Don’t jeopardize your race performance by taking this much easy/down time. Instead, most successful ultra-runners have great results after a 10 – 14 day taper. Week 1 of the taper should be at 65% of normal running volume, and week 2 of the taper should be at approximately 45% of normal running volume (not including the race distance). A lot can happen during a taper, and it is critical not to over-eat, over-salt, and/or over-hydrate. These actions can lead to significant fatigue, weight gain, digestive issues, and poor performance. Stick to your normal diet – or if anything – aim to consume 10% – 20% fewer calories per day during your taper. Lastly, make sure you keep up some intensity in your running. My favorite ‘intensity’ run that I do 4 to 6 days prior to an event is a simple 1 hour run with 10 x 1 minute hard surges sprinkled in throughout the full hour. These workouts will help keep you primed and ready for peak performance.
Conventional wisdom has long held that the only way to perform well in endurance exercise is by consuming a high-carbohydrate diet and shunning foods that may be high in fat. I have seen many runners sabotage a performance by ‘carbo-loading’ to the point of being completely bloated, stuffed, and nauseous. I would highly encourage folks to eat a moderate carbohydrate diet that emphasizes starchy vegetables as the carb source instead of grains. My all-time favorite carb-source during periods of heavy training? Homemade sweet-potato chips – baked with coconut oil and sprinkled with a pinch of sea salt! Amazing! Stick to non-refined foods that are easily digested and allow for maximum nutrient absorption. This is controversial, but I would certainly suggest people take a look at eliminating gluten-containing grains from their day-to-day diets. Eat well to perform well!
Ever wonder why you need that extra cup of coffee in the late morning or early-afternoon? A little soft around the mid-section? Crave WAY TOO MUCH sugar? Take a look at your sleep habits and I bet you’ll find that you are at least slightly deficient in sleep volume. My ‘sweet-spot’ with regards to hours-per-night of sleep is 7.5. By this I mean that after sleeping a solid 7.5 hours, I wake up feeling rested, focused, and eager to go-about my day. If I consistently sleep less than 7.5 hours, my mood deteriorates just about as fast as my productivity at work. What about you? I would suggest taking good notes and identifying what your ideal amount of sleep is. Try adding 30 – 60 minutes to your sleep-routine and see if your overall fitness, brain function, and mood improve. As you come up to altitude for your goal-race, I’d encourage you to not go to bed too early though. Most folks toss-and-turn for a few nights when then come from sea-level to altitude. I’d suggest bringing a comfy pillow, a good book, and some sleepy-time tea to help you through this transition. Sleep well to perform well!
This one is critical. Again, I feel that most runners take this to the extreme the week of a race – especially at altitude. We’ve all been there – lying around our hotel room with nothing to do – so what do we do? We sip constantly on a water bottle! DON’T DO IT. Too much hydration can lead to several problems, BUT it is important to show up on the start-line hydrated. So where is that happy-middle ground? To be sure, the happy middle-ground is highly individualized. Diet plays a big role – as higher carbohydrate diets require more water. (For every gram of glycogen stored, 3 – 4 grams of water are stored with it). One rule of thumb is to look for a pale-yellow color to your urine. More clear than that? Lay off the H2O. Dark yellow urine? Add in a bit more water AND sport-drink such as Acli-Mate. How much should you pee the day before a race? Again, the answer varies, but generally aim to urinate once every 3 waking hours. Remember, thirst is not always a positive indicator of the need to drink, especially at altitude. Drink enough, but don’t drink too much.
5. Acclimatization to Altitude
If you live at low altitude, it is tough to nail down a training plan that will get you ready for racing success at high altitude. Most runners cannot simply move to altitude for the 3 weeks prior to their event. So, what are you supposed to do? If it is at all possible, I suggest going to altitude for 3 separate weekends during the final 10 – 12 week buildup to your event. The Leadville 100 is a perfect example. I suggest folks who live on the Front Range of Colorado come up to Leadville for a weekend in the middle of June, another weekend in early July, and a final weekend in late July. Time that last trip about 3 weeks prior to the race. I also suggest that runners take it very easy while they are training at altitude for the first time. It is imperative not to burn out your body with the added stress of altitude. Run casually and forget about ‘what pace you need to hit.’ Simply put, the more ‘time on feet’ that you can spend at altitude will help much more than any fast running can.
That should cover the basics.
Training and eating for races at altitude doesn’t need to be rocket-science. Live a life that emphasizes balance and consistency in your training, clean eating, solid hydration, and sound-sleep. These principles are important to follow in order to succeed at any race, but be aware that high-altitude amplifies the importance of these principles.
Duncan Callahan is a husband, father, and champion ultra runner bringing 6 years of high-level ultra performance and experience to the trails.
Looking for more guidance? Check out the coaching services of StrategicEndurance.com. Thanks for reading. Live well. Train well. DC