As a runner, I usually only think of ‘elevation’ in terms of whether a route is hilly or flat. But during a recent trip with my husband to New Mexico, the difference between the elevation of Hamilton, Ontario (300 – 600 feet above sea level, depending on whether you’re below or on the escarpment) and that of Albuquerque (5000 feet) made me consider the effects of altitude on the body and exercise.
At higher elevation, because the air pressure is lower, we get less oxygen per breath. The body compensates for this by breathing faster, even at rest. This wasn’t noticeable to me, until I climbed a flight of stairs and found myself winded. When I went out for a run, it felt as though I was running uphill with a cold, even though the terrain was flat and I was fine.
The air is also drier, so it’s easy to become dehydrated. Moisturizer (with sunscreen, of course), lipbalm, and lots and lots of water are essential. Perversely, the by-products of all the extra breathing cause more work for the kidneys, so you also have to pee more than usual.
Other possible effects are fatigue, headache, and increased susceptibility to alcohol. And that’s just for higher elevation – it’s not considered high altitude until you hit 10,000 feet. And that’s a whole ‘nother story.
The body does adapt, by producing more red blood cells to circulate the oxygen more efficiently, but this takes a week or two. (Competitive athletes will often train at higher altitudes, to get this natural advantage.)
It so happened that I was in Albuquerque when the 30th annual Duke City Marathon was held – with the start and finish right outside our hotel. There were 5 k, 10 k, half- and full marathon races. How could I resist? I entered the 10 k event, treating it as a fun run and taking a few pics along the way. It came as no surprise that I ran a ‘personal worst’ but I enjoyed the views of the Sandia mountains in the distance, the golden cottonwood trees along the route, and the company of thousands of fit and friendly New Mexicans.