Running While High: The Altitude Effect

Last week, I spent time in surrounding Salt Lake City, Utah area.  In addition to taking in the many beautiful sights, drinking low alcohol beer (only 4.0 percent or lower beer is sold at grocery stores) and enjoying the respite from 95 degree Philly temperatures, I also did get a chance to do some running.

Running in most areas of Utah, of course, is much different than running here in Philly.  In addition to gorgeous mountain and lake scenery, Utah is at a substantially higher elevation than our sea level city.  Eden, where I did most of my running is at an altitude of approximately 5,200 feet, with many hills along the way.  So what’s it like to run at altitude for a week?  Quite an adjustment and challenging but also possibly rewarding.

The main difficulty of running at altitude is the reduced oxygen pressure.  As less oxygen reaches your blood through your lungs and then muscles, it’s significantly harder to breathe, particularly when you’re exerting effort.  You are probably most affected by altitude when you’re going up hills.  The feeling in your lungs is as if you’ve been holding your breathe underwater for a few minutes and are now gasping for air.  Similarly, your quads feel like they’re burning.  On at least a couple of steep uphills, I had to stop for a minute or two to rest.

Altitude affects just about everyone, though the extent of the impact differs.  Some people adjust quicker than others.  It usually takes weeks to have your body fully adjust and account for the lesser oxygen pressure.

The positive effect is that when I did return back to Philly, the flat runs have felt good, and the area’s small hill climbs have seemed effortless.  The humidity during summer runs?  That still feels the same.


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