How to Breathe While Running at High Elevation

"Priceless" mountain vistas may in fact have a cost: oxygen.

"Priceless" mountain vistas may in fact have a cost: oxygen.

As of 2010, there were more than 310 million people in the United States, and only a relative handful lived at high altitude; Denver, Colorado was the only metropolitan area in the country with a population greater than 1 million situated over 5,000 feet above sea level. The implications? If you're a low-living distance runner and travel to, say, a ski town in the Rockies or a resort in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, your unsuspecting cardiorespiratory system faces serious challenges.

Start your run at a pace that is much slower than usual. Even if you feel "normal" before you start exercising, the effects of altitude become much more apparent when your oxygen demands increase.

Breathe using a pattern that matches your footsteps in some way, such as inhaling for two steps and exhaling for two: a 2-2 pattern. Experiment with different patterns such as 3-3, 2-3 or 3-4. What is most comfortable will, of course, depend on your effort level.

Inhale deeply, focusing on letting your abs loosen on inspiration and contract on expiration; this is "belly breathing" and not only helps you draw complete breaths, but may help forestall side stitches.

Relax your body and focus on your effort, not your pace. Remind yourself that the phenomenon of "air hunger" you may be experiencing at especially high altitudes is to be expected and that you can manage it with conscious effort.

Items you will need

  • Running shoes and attire
  • Sunscreen
  • Stopwatch

Tips

  • Consult an online resource such as the Runworks calculator to determine what your sea-level pace converts to at your present altitude. For example, if you are in Colorado Springs, with a mean elevation of 6,172 feet, and normally run 5K in 25:00, you can expect to run about 25:45 with the same effort.
  • Different people handle exercising at high elevations differently, and adjust to it at different rates and to various degrees. Don't be surprised if the training partner you normally match stride for stride is either struggling to keep up or leaving you in the dust.

Warnings

  • Drink plenty of water before and during your trip. It is easy to become dehydrated at high elevation because the low air pressure means that moisture more easily evaporates from your skin, and this water loss is insidious since you won't see it leaving your body like you would if you were, say, sweating buckets in the muggy atmosphere of Florida.
  • Wear sunscreen, as ultraviolet rays are less filtered by thinner air.
 

About the Author

L.T. Davidson has been a professional writer and editor since 1994. He has been published in "Triathlete," "Men's Fitness" and "Competitor." A former elite cyclist with a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, Davidson is now in the broadcast news business.

Photo Credits

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