Sunday, April 10, 2011

Acclimatization 8 Months Later

I've been in Colorado now for 8 months and I still haven't been able to conclude whether living at 8,600 ft. altitude has had a positive, negative, or neutral effect on my running. Initially the altitude was very hard on my body. It took more than a month before my resting heart rate dropped below 48 (my sea level RHH is about 39) and I had no more than 2 or 3 runs in my first two months here that I felt really strong. I never knew how much of this was due to the altitude. Shortly after moving here I came down with a head/chest cold that lasted for about 6 weeks! I think the way I felt (pretty crappy) all of September and October was in part from the alititude, but also in part from my illness, as well as from the emotional/psychological effect of going through a change as distinct as moving to a new place, which resulted in an almost completely different day to day lifestyle for me.

As far as my racing has gone it's also hard to say what effect living this high has had. I ran 3 races in the fall and they were all pretty mediocre for me. By the time my Bandera DNF came around in early January I was starting to think that maybe living this high up was hindering my running performance. Perhaps I was just not ever able to train at a high enough pace to keep my legs tuned as much as they should be. Then I ran Chuckanut last month and completely disproved that theory. Chuckanut was one of the best days of running I've ever had (in terms of how my body felt physically).

Where this has all led to now is that I feel like living this high up was a pretty big challenge for the first several months. A challenge that my body took months to adapt to and to figure out. Now that I have made that adaptation I am beginning to feel like it is to my advantage to live at this altitude. It actually reminds me a lot of when I first moved to Juneau. It took me over a year to adapt to the terrain (super steep and in many areas super technical) in Juneau and turn what seemed like a negative thing into a very positive thing. In the case of the altitude I think a huge portion of this adaptation is purely physical, but I also don't discount that a large part of this is mental. For months I hard a very hard time accepting the way I feel when I run at 8,500+ ft. I just kept waiting for it to feel better. And day after day it just kept feeling pretty crappy, especially when I went up to 10, 11, 12k, and above. Now it still feels kind of crappy when I go up that high, but I've come to accept that this is OK. I've finally, after 8 months, let go of my preconceived notions of what it's supposed to feel like to run.

A couple days ago I did a loop run on snowshoes up in the Indian Peaks Wilderness that was 15 miles and took me up to 11,700ft. It took me almost 4 hours to complete and when I was done I felt like it would have been tough for me to do that loop much faster than I did. I was exhausted. Several months ago a run like this would have really frustrated me. In the same way that "running" up some of the steeper trails in Juneau really frustrated me the first year or two that I lived there.

Now that I have made this shift in consciousness my hope is that it will remain ingrained in my psyche to accept the way it feels to run at high altitude. I'm leaving in one month to head back to Juneau for the summer. After 5 years in Juneau I have little doubt that I will have any problem accepting what it is to run in the mountains around Juneau (probably just seeing the mountains on the flight into town and I'll shift instantly into my Juneau Running Mentality). What will be more interesting though will be to see how quickly I adapt (both physically and mentally) to being back at altitude when I return to Colorado in August. I suspect this shift will take more than just seeing the landscape again, but hopefully this time it takes something more like 8 days than the 8 months that it took this year. I guess time will tell.


Steve Pero said...

Geoff...This is a very timely post for me to read.

I moved from NH (800') to my new home in NM, which is at 8200', about 2.5 months ago and although initially it was ok, recently (since Salida) I've been struggling more. Maybe I'm expecting a quicker acclimation than I'm feeling, but it is a struggle almost daily. So what do I do? Lots of hiking with runs injected in on the downhills. I am 59, so may be having more issues than you are, but it was good to see it took you 4 hours to do 15 miles, my run (rike) yesterday of 14 miles took me a little over 4 hours and I did a lot of hiking!

Looking forward to seeing how you do in August...someone once told me that it takes a good 6 months to feel like you did pre-altitude, so I have 3 more months to go, just in time for SJS50 and Hardrock ;-)

jacob said...

Before i went to afghanistan in 06 i was at ft. polk louisiana(below sea level) and went to my fob in afghanistan(6600). wreaked havoc on me. I still live only a few feet above sea level but now i practice wearing a gas mask while i run.

GZ said...

Interesting post. You and Lucho may want to compare experiences ... and in fact, I think that Nate Jenkins also had some similar outcomes when he was out here.

GZ said...

And curious to see if your xfer back to AK changes up your resting HR again.

Mary Crowe said...

It will take time to re-acclimate when you go back to CO after a summer at lower altitude. There is a physiological response- mostly a marked increase in red blood cells and hemeglobin - that your body needs to adapt to the less oxygen dense air at higher altitudes. That process usually takes a full 6 weeks to complete.