I went into my first run in Santa Fe confident. Too confident.
Before I came here, I had been running regularly in Vermont on a 4-mile, hilly route during one of the state’s coldest winters. The difference in elevation would be a challenge, I knew. Still, I thought I was ready for it.
But at around 7,000 feet, Santa Fe is more than 5,000 feet higher than where I was running in Vermont. And I felt all of that difference in elevation during my first run in the City Different. I set off at a fast pace. That lasted for about a quarter of a mile. Less than a mile in, I was gasping and had to stop for a break.
According to a chart from Hypoxico, an altitude training company, the effective oxygen percentage at 7,000 feet is 16 percent versus 20.9 percent at sea level. Essentially, at high elevations, thinner air causes the body to work harder than it would at sea level.
This means that high-altitude running after living at lower elevations will be a challenge for most people at first. Still, there are some strategies that can make the transition easier. Here are four methods to help you adjust to thin-air exercise.
Set a goal
Running is often as much a mental challenge as a physical one. And getting motivated for a run you know will involve some pain isn’t easy. During my first few months in Santa Fe, I didn’t have a specific running schedule. I just went when I had time. And getting myself out the door was often a mental challenge because there was no concerted goal other than the exercise itself.
In June, I signed up for a half marathon. Since then, I’ve noticed that though the distance I’m running has gone up, my enjoyment of the runs has increased. The prospect of successfully completing a challenging goal has made me excited to get up and go and has helped me create a training schedule I can stick to.
Of course, doing a long race isn’t the only goal you can set. Other possibilities could be decreasing your minute-per-mile time or running without taking breaks. Whatever your goal is, having something to work toward can make a huge difference in getting you mentally ready to run.
As I found out during my first run in Santa Fe, most of us aren’t going to be shattering personal records when starting to exercise at altitude. Instead, take it slow at first and focus on managing your breathing and finishing the run. Spend at least a month doing this before attempting to increase your speed.
In addition, keep in mind that your progression likely won’t be entirely linear. There will be good runs and bad runs. Don’t get frustrated if you follow up a great run with one that’s mediocre. Instead, focus on moving your overall trend line forward.
Don’t make it harder
You can make running at altitude easier on your body by having a plan. For example, running while it’s still relatively cool at 7 or 8 a.m. can make exercise a lot more enjoyable.
You should also pay attention to what you put in your body before a run. If you run early in the morning, try not to eat a heavy meal the night before, as your body might still be digesting the next morning. In addition, before a run, make sure to drink some water — just not too much. You want to be hydrated, but you don’t want water sloshing around and contributing to cramps.
Finally, pick a route that is relatively flat and away from major roads. In Santa Fe, the River Trail — a bike path that parallels the Santa Fe River — is an ideal spot.
Do other forms of exercise
Cross-training is an effective way to build aerobic capacity at altitude. And one of the best cross-training methods is right here in our backyard: high-elevation hiking.
While running in Santa Fe puts you at about 7,000 feet, the peaks around the city extend to above 12,000 feet. Hiking those mountains allows you to build high-altitude endurance and has the added benefit of working different muscle groups.
If you do elevation hiking regularly, it’s likely that running at 7,000 feet will begin to feel like a less daunting task as your body becomes acclimated to even higher altitudes.
Evan Popp is a copy editor at The New Mexican.