How Does Altitude Affect Your Running Speed?

So, you're headed somewhere with high altitude to run, and you want to know, how's that gonna affect me? Maybe you're going to Denver, you're gonna run the boulder Boulder, I guess it's in Boulder. But you're gonna fly into Denver and you're trying to figure out what should my time actually look like?
How Does Altitude Affect Your Running Speed?

So, you're headed somewhere with high altitude to run, and you want to know, how's that gonna affect me? Maybe you're going to Denver, you're gonna run the boulder Boulder, I guess it's in Boulder. But you're gonna fly into Denver and you're trying to figure out what should my time actually look like? Well, I'm Jesse Funk and on today's episode of Runner's High, We're going to talk about how altitude affects your running times.

If you’ve been with me here on the channel you know that a few weeks back, I went and ran the Manitou incline. I flew specifically out to Colorado Springs to drive to Manitou Springs to run the incline. Now, knowing that I live in Kansas City, I'm only about 900 feet above sea level, which means for all intents and purposes, I'm at sea level. There's no altitude training at all, and the incline starts at 6,500 feet, climbs 2,000 feet in less than a mile and ends at 8,500 feet. So, there is significant altitude change between where I live and train all the time compared to the incline.

So, I started to think how is that going to affect me and what am I going to experience because of the change in oxygen for this particular run. If you haven't seen that video, as always, hit that subscribe button, then go check it out after this video is over. As anecdotal evidence, I’ve been out to Colorado Springs to run before. I've been to cross country camps as a coach of high school kids, and I know that I didn't really experience a whole lot of altitude sickness.

I don't know that I really had a big change in my RPE, my rate of perceived exertion when I was out there at altitude. So, I wasn't really particularly stressed or worried about how the altitude is going to affect me. But despite my own personal convictions, I know that there are limits to the human body and that things are going to be different when I went out there to run. So, I had to try to figure out what was going to happen to me.

Now, first, I have to clear something up, and it's often said there's less oxygen available to us at high altitudes. But that's not actually true. There's as much oxygen at high altitude as there is at sea level. The big deal here, the reality is that even though there's enough oxygen for us at high altitudes, as there is at sea level, the difference is the air pressure. The air pressure is lower at high altitudes, meaning that when we inhale, there's not as much volume getting into our lungs. So, there is effectively less oxygen for us at high levels.

Now, it may seem like splitting hairs, but I always like to try to present the facts. So, instead of just saying there's less oxygen out there, that's not actually true. It's all about the air pressure and there are ways to figure this out. You can actually find, there's a link down in the description and you can click on that.

It's a site that has this wonderful chart that shows us all the changes in elevation, and then the effective amount of oxygen available for us because of the change in that air pressure. So, if we reference that chart and we look at 6,500 feet, there's effectively 15 to 20% less oxygen for us to use. And as we get to 8,500 feet, there's 25 to 27% less oxygen for us to use.

But how does that actually affect our performance? Well, fortunately, there's a nice measure that we like to use in running that correlates to our speed all the time. And that's VO2 Max, volume of oxygen maximum capacity we can use, that’s our aerobic capacity. So, there are smarter people than me that figure these things out. In particular, as I always like to refer to the eponymous running coach, Jack Daniels.

Several different studies have shown roughly a loss of 1% of VO2 Max per 1,000 feet of elevation gain. But jack daniels has pointed out that just because we are going up in elevation and losing some VO2 Max, it doesn't necessarily mean we have a direct correlation in performance going down. Because remember that air pressure, that air resistance that's important goes down as we go up in elevation as well. So, there is some air resistance change, meaning we can move faster through this fluid. Remember, we do live in a fluid even though we like to pretend that air is not anything sometimes.

We live in a fluid, so the less pressure the less air resistance we have, the faster we can go. So, just because we are having less oxygen available to us, doesn't mean that is necessarily the entire factor that we're trying to, you know compensate for. This is more particular to sprinters. Often sprint times are going to be faster at altitude because of that lowered air resistance.

They're a more anaerobic activity, meaning oxygen isn't as important versus a long distance activity like we're doing. So, that air resistance does give us some help because it's lower. But it is still important to take into account that the amount of oxygen that's available to us is going to be more limiting to us as distance runners.

So, if I understand the math correctly, and I've looked to these studies correctly, what it means is this, if you live at or near sea level, like I do, and you're going to Boulder to run the boulder Boulder, then you're basically going to have a 5,000 feet change, which means a 5% decrease in performance. What that actually turns out to mean is it say you're going to run the 10K, and normally your 10K time is about 40 minutes. Let's forget PRs, sometimes those are outliers. But generally speaking, you run about 40 minutes. That means a good expected time because of the altitude change is going to be about 42 minutes.

Remember, less effective oxygen means we can't run as fast, we do get some help with the lower air resistance. But that's not as important if you're an endurance runner and go for 5 to 10K or even longer than that. This of course doesn't take into account the psychological effects that altitude has on us, both positive and negative.

So, remember that your mind is always a powerful tool in getting you across the finish line as fast as you possibly can. Now, if you want to see those effects of altitude in action, hit subscribe, stay tuned to the channel, then go check out that video or I ran the incline. I talked about what happened to me on the incline, what happened afterwards, kind of my expected time, how things turned out.

And know I'm probably going to return the incline for a second shot at it. Now that I know a little bit more about how to maximize my time on the incline dealing with both altitude and the change in gradient. So, if you want to see something on the channel, leave them down in the comments below.

I always want to know what do you want to see what do you want to know about running to be the best runner you can be. Leave them in the comments down below. I'll get to them and reply to you and hopefully, make a video in the future. I'll see the next time on the next episode of Runner’s High.

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