Comedian Mitch Hedberg famously noted that his desire to mountain climb was based solely on the romanticized idea of hanging out at basecamp, growing a beard, and drinking hot chocolate. In a similar vein, I found myself buying a ticket to Albuquerque to go hang out with the Brooks Beasts and experience life as a pro runner at high-altitude training camp. Breathing clean, thin air, experiencing the solitude of life without wifi, and simplifying the day’s objectives without distraction — days of run, rest, eat, repeat: this, in my mind, was to be the perfect retreat away from the daily grind. But I soon discovered that everything is more exhausting at altitude — even the simple act of trying to fall asleep that first night resulted in my hyperventilation — and the body responds in one of two ways: adapt or fail. Garrett Heath, currently one of the top talents in U.S. distance running, puts it best with regard to training at altitude. “You’re always toeing the line both physically and mentally between gaining that extra 1–2% of fitness that will get you ready to go sub-13:10 in the 5k, and completely breaking down your body to the point where you won’t recover until the offseason.”
The whole altitude craze goes back a few years, to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, when Kip Keino upset Jim Ryun, the former world record holder, at 1500 meters. John Brant’s words in his essay “The Volcano Runners”captured the mood perfectly. “In those first vertiginous days after the ’68 Games, the distance-running community panicked. It was as if Sputnik had just been launched, and a swift response was needed.” Wars are known for driving scientific advancement, and serious sport is war without bullets. So it comes as no surprise that certain exercise physiologists have spent their life’s work studying the effects of altitude on endurance running performance. Dr. Robert Chapman, the current director of sport science and medicine for USA track and field, is one such scientist. While studying the individual response to altitude training, he and his team observed an interesting phenomenon. While some athletes experienced huge gains in running performance following 4 weeks at altitude camp, others did not. Certain athletes, dubbed “high responders”, demonstrated significant increases in hormonal erythropoietin release and subsequent red blood cell production, while others, the “non-responders”, had blood values that were altogether unremarkable. After watching the Brooks athletes effortlessly spring along the trails of the Sandia Foothills, I think it’s fair to assume that, if not superhuman, they can at least be categorized as “high responders”. As for myself, with a sunburn settling in and a chipotle burrito in my hand, I feared what prolonged exposure to these conditions might do as I wheezed my way back to the car.
The purpose of training at altitude is to supercharge the body’s ability to transport oxygen to working muscles and, in simple terms, result in one running faster with less work. An increase in hemoglobin (Hg), the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues, theoretically equates to improved running economy. Thus, a blood test measuring total hemoglobin mass (tHb-mass) was developed to track an athlete’s responsiveness to altitude training. For an athlete to experience all the hormonal benefits of being at altitude, while also being able to maintain a high absolute training intensity, the “live-high, train-low” has become an attractive option. For this reason, Park City, Utah (7,000 ft) has become one of the best U.S. training locations. Athletes can drive 40 minutes to Salt Lake City (4,226 ft) for intense sessions and zip back home to get the best of both worlds. Albuquerque, though, also has its perks.
Danny Mackey, the coach of the Brooks Beasts, is a trained exercise physiologist and has years of fieldwork research to complement the laboratory data. However, like any great coach, he understands the limitations of scientific literature. In the 1980s and ’90s, the American scientific community pedantically preached that running fewer miles with more intensity would yield greater results. What followed was a generation of runners underperforming, so the scientist’s credibility on athletic performance took a major hit. Nowadays, a coach’s own expertise supersedes all other levels of evidence since, ultimately, the only data points worth tracking are an athlete’s results. To optimize performance, Danny constantly adjusts his athletes training based on things he observes in practice and the conversations he has after the training sessions. He notes that the blood tests do help back up the conclusions he already has but is quick to point out that the values are not directly correlated with racing performance. He also adds that athletes might run well in their first race back from altitude training and then become tied to an elevated data point. I gather that altitude training is not plug and play…and that it isn’t as simple as the Wired magazine articles make it sound.
The track and field world is a tightly knit community, and many of my questions regarding the altitude training experience kept leading me back to where it all began — Iten, Kenya. This small village on the other side of the globe is famous for creating some of the best distance runners the world has ever seen and is a popular training destination for both local and international athletes.
One such athlete, Hugo van den Broek, left for Iten in 2000 after graduating with his master’s degree in human movement sciences, and after several training stints, the Dutch runner decided in 2007 to move there permanently. Hugo’s encyclopedic knowledge of training and coaching at altitude are astounding, and he kindly shared with me the successes and failures related to training at 8000 feet. He emphasized the importance of extra rest days as it’s common for foreigners to over-train when they first arrive. They’ve read “Train Hard, Win
Easy: The Kenyan Way” on the plane, and expect to run lock step with Ezekiel Kemboi once they arrive. Van Den Broek points out that this approach will undoubtedly fry your system. His advice is to completely recalibrate your heart rate zones and your overall mentality regarding training. “For a trained athlete, an easy 60 minute morning run at sea level is like brushing your teeth…but at 2400 meters, all running efforts are exponentially harder.” As we talked more about the differences, he emphasized how critically important your mental approach to training camp can be. He recalls how his friend Michael Butler, a sub 2:10 marathoner, excelled in Iten. “You can put him in a simple house on a hill with only cold water and no electricity, and he is happy, as long as he can train hard. Others get bored with the simple lifestyle and, not surprisingly, fail to reap the benefits.” This sentiment, regarding a runner’s mindset seems to be the reoccurring theme between all the coaches and athletes I interviewed.
Hannah Fields, a 19(!) time NAIA National Champion and current Brooks Beast athlete, notes that dealing with the isolation effects of altitude training camp is easy when you’re surrounded by likeminded and inspiring teammates who are all on the same quest to be great. The down time is filled with cooking lessons, card games, random contests to beat back the boredom, and enjoying the serenity of the simple life. Garrett Heath reiterates Hanna’s thoughts but adds that waking up to find a teammate sleep walking around your room in the middle of the night can create some interesting personal space dilemmas. “But,” as he says, it’s “nothing a good cup of coffee or local beer can’t fix.” The difference, perhaps, in whether or not a person will take to the sort of lifestyle that altitude training entails may essentially be one of personality.
Many of the answers I received regarding the benefits and possible hazards of altitude training led to more questions, and I found myself deeply immersed in esoteric research studies involving interindividual variation and epigenetics. I felt as though I was on the verge of cracking the code of the human experience, before coming to the realization that everyone’s own response to altitude training will vary depending on an innumerable amount of confounding variables. However, the main takeaways can be condensed into a few bullet points to ensure your 6 week altitude training camp retreat goes as well as possible (whether it be in Albuquerque, Park City, Iten, or elsewhere).
1) Cherish the rest days. Both Danny and Hugo hammered home this point, as harder efforts take much longer to recover while at altitude. When in doubt, take the extra day to recover.
2) Ensure high iron/ferritin levels before going to altitude. Creating new red blood cells requires enough of the raw materials to experience a positive response. Researchers agree that depletion in iron stores may account for the lack of adaptation.
3) Get your mind right. The psychosocial component to running cannot be emphasized enough, especially in this case. Dig too deep in training, and you risk overtraining. Spend too much time in your comfort zone, and you may lose top end speed and fitness.
4) Sleep as much as you can. Hypoxia induces all sorts of irregular sleep patterns and a shift from deeper to lighter sleep patterns. With impaired recovery, cognition, mood and executive functions, getting those afternoon catnaps in the sun may make all the difference in the world (and in a world championship team).
As for me, at the end of my three days of altitude training, I was left with a few takeaways of my own, only one of which was the sunburn. After a long weekend of limited oxygen, great burritos, and good company, I was left concluding that altitude training may not be for everyone. But for those with the right mindset and physical constitution, it may be exactly what you need to take your running career to the next level.