Ultrarunning: Preparing for High Altitude Races

January 24, 2012

This article is part of Endurance Planet’s ultrarunning article series. If you have questions, comments or feedback about “Preparing for High Altitude Races”, please leave it below in the comments section…

High altitude marathons are no doubt one of the most difficult races out there. And it’s not just the uniquely challenging topography that has to be carefully managed; there are also the dangers of performing vigorous activities for prolonged periods in an area with very low air pressures. It is imperative for the athlete to fully prepare for such environment to minimize if not rule out potentially life-threatening consequences of running long distances on high altitude places.

Get acquainted with the dangers of altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness is a very serious condition and one which needs to be prevented at all costs. It presents symptoms that are almost similar to that of dehydration and hyponatremia (water intoxication) making it difficult to correctly identify.

Altitude sickness occurs because of the combined low oxygen supply and low atmospheric pressures which inhibit blood circulation, which in turn result in depleted oxygen in the body. One who’s afflicted with altitude sickness will present symptoms such as nausea, lightheadedness, blurred vision, decreased reaction time, and sleepiness. If not quickly addressed, altitude sickness can lead to potentially fatal swelling of the brain and the lungs.

Train high

Ensuring your blood has sufficient hemoglobin levels is crucial prior to subjecting yourself to mountain runs. Taking supplements such as Iron and Vitamin C have been proven to improve blood health. However, the body can just as effectively adapt and produce its own supply of hemoglobin if it is subjected continuously to high altitudes for 3 to 12 weeks. So if it’s practical for you to perform your training in an area with similar altitude levels 3 months prior to the ultra, then you’ll have a better edge over the other runners.

Sleep low

Opt to spend your recovery time in lower altitudes after training high. This will give your body the chance to fully recuperate as it won’t be unnecessarily forced to adapt to low oxygen and low atmospheric conditions during the resting phase.

Go slow

Pace yourself and opt to go slow once you’re in the actual race. Run towards high altitudes in fast speeds and you’ll end up gasping for breath. Bear in mind that air is thinner up the mountains so you will want to gradually introduce your body to this subtly changing environmental conditions to reduce the possibilities of trauma.


High altitudes tend to have lower ambient temperatures. In colder climate, one’s sweating isn’t as pronounced thus giving you the false sense of feeling hydrated. However, a lot of water in the form of vapor is released when performing high impact activity in thin air. So drink plenty but in controlled volumes even if you’re not sweating.

Load up on fat and carbo

You’ll need all the energy you can get so do not hesitate to load up on carbohydrates, even fat. Of course, eat foods rich in protein and iron to promote hemoglobin health.


Don’t push yourself to climb farther if you’re feeling queasy. Not finishing the race is much better than ending up in the hospital with possibly fatal swelling brain and lungs.


Do you have questions about preparations for high altitude races, or what you’ve read so far? Do you have any ultrarunning pointers of your own to add? Please leave your feedback, comments and questions below, and we promise we’ll respond.

One Comment

  • Tiny Dancer says:

    Hello, thank you for the article. What is considered a high altitude race? Most of my training is below 1500′, and I’m considering doing a race that’s mostly between 8000′ – 9000′. I’m wondering if this is high enough to be considered a high altitude race, with associated risks. Thank you.

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