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Heat vs. Altitude Training

Here’s the rough transcription from the video. (Video goes into a few more details.)

If you’re racing in the heat it’s going to help to train in the heat and if you’re racing at altitude it’s going to be helpful to do some altitude training. But will heat training help for altitude and would either altitude training or heat training help for cooler races around sea level? These are the questions I’m going to answer. I’ll also give you advice and tips on how to implement these training strategies.

Let’s start with Altitude Training:

Historically, altitude training has gotten a lot of positive press in the endurance world, but newer research is starting to highlight why it’s not always helpful. 

The quick summary of why altitude training can be beneficial for endurance athletes is that your body will start to produce more red blood cells and red blood cells carry oxygen to your muscles. There are some other positive benefits like capillary density, but that’s the big one. It can be viewed as a natural boost to your muscles. There can also be a very real mental boost when runners come down from altitude.

The increase in red blood cells should help people run faster, but here’s what you have to keep in mind:

  1. There are responders and non-responders to altitude training. You can switch between being a non-responder and a responder.
  1. Some people will even have negative responses, such as anemia and a loss of speed. Think about it, you can’t run as fast at altitude so it’s harder to train speed (doesn’t include sprinters). This is where the live high, train low protocol comes from.
  1. Recovery is slower at high altitudes. This is why many altitude researchers don’t even think sleeping in an altitude tent is worth it. You might get more benefits from faster recovery and being able to fit in more training

Tips for Altitude Training

  1. If you’ll be training an altitude for weeks and not just a few days, you need to place a huge emphasis on recovery. Try to get more sleep, take easy days seriously, eat well, and stay hydrated. Some of these things might actually feel challenging at first. For instance, if you have trouble sleeping, you may need to lighten your training load even more. Every year elite runners do altitude stints before big races and feel flat on race day because they ignored the importance of recovery.
  1. If you’re trying to keep speed, think about shortening the length of your intervals and or lengthening your recovery between intervals.
  1. Unless your training for Leadville 100 which is mostly above 10,000ft, 7 to 8,000ft is often an ideal elevation to train at.
  1. If you’re just doing a short training camp at altitude, lets say ~3 days, you can get in some good training while you’re there, but make a plan to focus on recovery after. If you don’t feel great the first time you’re at altitude, know it might feel easier the next time you get up high.
  1. If I’m training someone for a high altitude race that’s coming from sea level, I try to get them used to breathing hard, which is often easily accomplished with a variety of hill workouts.
  1. If you live around sea level, you’re signed up for a race at altitude and it’s impossible to do altitude training, heat training may be beneficial, which brings me to the next topic…

Heat Training:

Once considered a “poor man’s altitude training” some coaches and researchers are suggesting this may be the better, more practical option. In fact, if you’re racing close to sea level and you know race day will be warm, I feel confident in saying that heat training is the better option.

So what are the benefits of heat training?

  1. Some heat training adaptations include an increase in blood plasma volume, increased sweat rate to keep you cool, reduced heart rate at a given temperature and pace, and it will cause a drop in your perceived exertion in cooler temps. In other words, running at 70 degrees Fahrenheit (~21 degrees celsius) will seem easier once you sit in a sauna that’s over 100 degrees. If you’re wondering about blood plasma, plasma is the fluid component of your blood that helps oxygen and other nutrients get carried to your hard-working muscles. Anyway, many of these benefits can help you at high altitudes.
  1. Your body can adapt quicker to the heat than to high altitudes. Most heat training protocols are 7 to 14 days, but you can start benefiting in as little as 3 days. 

-Tips for Heat Training

  1. Similar to altitude training you still have to acknowledge your body is making changes. Support yourself as you make these adaptations! This is also why the 3-5 day heat training protocol right before a race can be risky. 
  1. The most common heat training protocol is to use a sauna for 20-30+ minutes every day to every other day for 7 to 14 days leading up to race day.  If you have no access to a sauna, you can get benefits from wearing extra layers as you run or even blasting the heat in your house. Also, don’t worry if you heat train and then go into an air-conditioned room. You won’t lose any benefits.
  1. You still want to do your speed workouts in cooler conditions to get the most out of them. Don’t sacrifice your speed training. If possible, just do all of your easier runs in the heat, including long runs if they don’t have a big speed component.
  1. Contrary to what some people have said, being heat trained DOES NOT mean you can take in less fluids. Do your research on what proper hydration looks like. Dehydration feels awful, it makes your body have to work a lot harder, and it will make you run slower. 

Now, what about heat training for a race that will likely be in cool temperatures? Well, it’s debatable. Much of the research does say heat training still provides benefits, but some studies have shown no benefits. With that said, I haven’t seen a study say that there are negative benefits.

CONCLUSION:

As I started off, nothing will replace being fit and healthy. 

With that said, I recently heard an altitude and performance researcher say that going out of your way to implement altitude tents, masks, and at some level, altitude training stints, often isn’t worth it. It’s better to recover well and work with what you got. From a coaching perspective, I’d rather have my athletes focus on proper nutrition, sleep, some strength and mobility, body work, and feeling strong for their key runs. It would be silly to train at altitude for the benefits and then eat like crap all of the time, right? 

Now, I live in Colorado. If I was training for Pikes Peak or Leadville 100, I would definitely spend time at or above 10,000ft. But, I’d do 2-3 day stents and then head back to a lower altitude to recover and get in some faster runs. That’s because I’ve learned the hard way that I get a negative effect if I stay high for too long.

As for heat training, I definitely think it’s worth it if you’re racing in warm conditions. There are plenty of examples of fit athletes wilting in the heat because they didn’t train at all for it. It’s almost always a good idea to simulate race conditions, to an extent, in your training.  Also, it’s worth trying if you’ll be racing at high altitudes. 

Lastly, supporting yourself as your body makes these adaptations as well as the attitude in which you approach altitude or heat always matters. 

If you want a training plan that includes information like this, be sure to check out the All In Plans at HigherRunning.com!