Last month, I made the big cross-country move from Toronto to Calgary for an indefinite amount of time. As I write this, I’ve only been living here for a month, but have noticed some big differences in my training. The change in terrain, weather, and altitude has been an adjustment for me and as a result, I’ve noticed some significant impacts on my running performance.
To give you an idea on the extent of the altitude change, Toronto’s elevation is 92 m / 301 feet and the average elevation of Calgary is 1,048 m / 3,438 feet. I’m living in a community in North Calgary called Varsity, which has an even higher elevation of 1,110m / 3,641 feet. The disparity between the place I lived and trained for 9 years to YYC is 1,018m / 3,340 feet; that’s a helluva difference.
Not only is altitude a factor, but I’m also incorporating many more hills into my workouts that are double or even triple the size of Toronto’s biggest hills I’ve encountered. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m new to this type of training and thoroughly enjoyed researching this article to learn more about how training in altitudes with hilly terrains can impact running performance. Before we dive into the differences I’m noticing, I want to explain a few educational soundbites.
Running in Altitudes
Since moving out west, I’ve felt a bit discouraged from the significant drop in my pace and stamina. There have been times where I’ve had to hit pause before tackling a big hill or even to just regain my composure after feeling bouts of dizziness.
So how does altitude really affect your running? In short, higher altitudes mean less oxygen being transported to the body and muscles. It will slow you down and can cause some negative side effects, such as nausea, headaches, and the most obvious of them all, difficulty breathing.
Running in High Altitudes
Just to clarify, I’m running in altitude, but not in high altitudes (+ 6,000m above sea level) where elite athletes train. I am, however, still feeling some subtle effects from the change. I have done some hiking in the mountains, but haven’t been able to fully capitalize on the performance aspects of the training.
There’s a training principle elite athletes use called live high train low where elite athletes will live ~7,000-8,000m above sea level and train below 4,000m.
In an article writen by the UT Southwestern Medical Center, author Ben Levine discusses the training methodology in more depth:
Living in higher altitudes and getting used to breathing “thinner” air can enhance elite athletes’ athletic performance in competitions at lower altitude. During workouts at high altitude, athletes feel like they’re putting forth more effort to perform as well as they do closer to sea level. The increased rate of perceived exertion is caused by altitude-induced hypoxia, which is a decrease in the amount of oxygen being delivered to the muscles to burn fuel and create energy.
In sum, altitude training can increase VO2 max which allows athletes to improve oxygen transport. As a result, muscles get an increased boost and performance can improve by 1–2%. While that may not seem like a material difference, the slightest increase in performance can mean a gold medal to an elite athlete or a PB for us regular folk.
I am trying to keep a positive mental attitude as I train in a more difficult environment. Although I will admit that seeing my pace slip consistently is a blow to the ego. The challenging Calgary terrain has made me really take a step back and re-evaluate my goals.
In addition to the higher altitudes, another big, big challenge are the hills. Altitude + Hills + Cold AF weather = one tough workout. I am always up for a challenge, but man those hills are hard. Let’s now get into some information surrounding hill training and my experience so far.
Incorporating hills into your training will for sure make you a stronger runner by strengthening your legs muscles and quickening your stride. The downside? Well, hills are hard as hell and in my perspective, suck HUGE at times.
While conducting research for this article, I was surprised to find so many different types of hill workouts. Each workout also brings a different benefit to your running.
In a Runner’s World article titled, Everything You Need to Know About Hill Training, the author outlines various hill workouts and associated benefits of each. I’ve summarized in a table below for ease of reference:
To give you the Cole’s Notes version, different types of hill workouts will provide you with different results. If you do live in a place with more challenging terrain, you should try and incorporate some hill training in your weekly rotation. If you’d rather opt for a workout inside, running intervals on the treadmill at an incline can also help build up power in the quads.
Tackling the Hills
When I’ve planned a hill workout, I need to be my biggest hype man to mentally prepare for it, especially if I’m planning on hitting some steep ones. I have a few different routes now, but they all require me to tackle a monstrosity of a hill at the end. When I first moved out here, I would dwell on that hill the entire workout; dreading the climb in the home stretch. I have kicked a few mental strategies into gear to help me tackle this behemoth, but also remain present and enjoy the res of the run.
When I finally get to the hill, I take a deep breath and focus on taking one step at a time. I don’t look ahead to see the amount of pain I have to endure, but rather, I look at my feet and take short, slow strides. Head down, my pets. Head down.
I also prefer to stay on the toes of my feet and launch myself with each stride of the ascent. Some days it’s tortuous, where others I’ll start the climb and before I know it, I’m at the top. I’ve noticed the hill has become progressively easier throughout my training. Although it’s not measurable at this point, I also feel physically stronger – which is a big motivator for me.
I’ve been running outside much more frequently than I normally would, especially given the current temperatures out west. About 70% of my weekly runs have been outdoors and ranged from 5-6.25 miles on average…with a few lower mileage days (4 miles or so) thrown in once a week. In addition to the outdoor runs, I’ll still incorporate some HIIT or tempo runs on the treadmill at least 1-2 times per week.
To give you an idea on the changes in my pace, I’ve included a snapshot of 10 runs in Toronto vs. Calgary:
My overall average pace is 8’43 / mile and ~5’25/km.
My overall pace is 9’06 / mile and 5’39/km.
While it may not seem like a big drop in overall pace, in the racing world, 14 seconds can for sure make or break a PB. Not only has my performance slowed from a pace perspective, but I’ve also noticed a few other changes. Just last week, I was talking to a friend on the phone while physically being defeated by a giant hill. I normally listen to music or an audiobook while running, so it was a bit of a shock to hear how heavy my breathing was – a disturbing mix of a wheeze and the breathing of a lifelong smoker. My friend was like, “uhhh do you want to call me back”? After I got to the top of the hill, I felt the instant change in altitude and continued my wheezing/breathing for about 5 minutes afterwards. The lack of oxygen was foreign to me.
Overall Impacts on Performance
It’s still a bit too early to see the direct impact Calgary running has had on my performance, but I do feel my lower body becoming more solid. From the research I conducted for this article, most point to seeing the effects of altitude 2-3 months after being immersed in it. I’m looking forward to getting out into the mountains and doing some intense trail runs in high altitudes during those warmer weeks.
When organized races start back up again, I do want to attempt the Sinister 7 Ultra 100 mile in the Alberta Rockies with a 6,665 m elevation (hopefully in 2021). Living out here will definitely better equip me for all the steep ascents in my next 100-mile attempt.
Until then, I’m looking forward to sharing my progress as I continue to acclimatize to this new terrain – stay tuned, my friends!