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Taking Running to a New “Height”

November 10, 2009

Today marks the beginning of my second week here in Pretoria, South Africa. As I mentioned in a previous post, my plan was to combat any homesickness or stress with lots and lots of running. On top of that, I’ve signed up as a GOTR SoleMate for the Atlanta ING Half-Marathon in March 2010, so I was determined to keep up my training  in South Africa.

When I left Atlanta, I could easily run 6 miles, and with a little extra effort could probably have handled 8 or 9. Despite that it had been a few weeks since I’d last run, when I hopped on the treadmill at my new gym in Pretoria I felt pretty confident that I’d be going strong for at least 45 minutes to an hour.

Twelve minutes later I was sweating profusely and frantically sucking air into my lungs as I fumbled on the unfamiliar treadmill to reduce my speed to a walk.

Devastated, I considered what could have happened. Could I really have gotten that out of shape in just a few weeks? Had I not gotten completely over my sinus infection? Was I still jetlagged? My confidence was shot as I contemplated having to slowly ramp back up to the distances it had taken me so much effort to achieve.

Thankfully, I’ve had the luck to befriend a personal trainer who works in my office. Upon telling her about the incident, she informed me that this reaction is normal due to Pretoria’s high elevation. I had absolutely no idea either that a) Pretoria sits so high above sea level or b) that my body would be so drastically affected by it.

In fact, Pretoria sits about 4,500 feet above sea level – while Atlanta is only 1,050 feet above sea level. From experience, I can tell you that that’s a big difference. According to

“Living in a high altitude comes with some conditions, as the thinner air results in fewer molecules of oxygen taken in with each breath… On land, the body will compensate by increasing the breathing rate, heart rate and red blood cell production, allowing for an increase in oxygen flow to the brain and muscles. If the body is responding properly to the elevation, normal symptoms such as decreased appetite, increased bladder activity, insomnia, slight swelling of hands, feet or knees, and temporary breathlessness after exercising will occur.”

It was amazing – since arriving in Pretoria I have experienced all of the symptoms in bold above!

Now, I recognize that most of you won’t be spending two months in Pretoria anytime soon. But you may go on a business trip or vacation to a place with high elevation. It’s critical to be aware of this, especially if you are training for a race. Here are some quick tips for runners to adjust to high altitudes (from Mama’

  1. Take your time – Begin your altitude training with low- to moderate-intensity running for the first five to seven days.
  2. Stay Hydrated – Dehydration naturally occurs at higher altitudes. Drink at least three liters (12 or 13 cups) of fluids per day.
  3. Readjust to low altitudes – Once you descend to a lower altitude, wait at least five to seven days before you try to race again. The wait is needed to allow your body to reestablish blood-acidity and electrolyte levels.
  4. Get plenty of rest – The increased breathing rate at higher altitudes often causes difficulty sleeping. Take naps and avoid caffeine and alcohol.

Luckily I followed some of these tips and have felt myself adjusting to my new height. I was thrilled during my morning workout today to complete a full three miles on the treadmill without stopping! I may maintain my endurance levels after all – in fact, I may even have surpassed them once I return to low-lying Atlanta!

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 10, 2009 5:04 pm

    So glad you asked someone for help and figured out what was bothering you! Just think how great your running will be when you get home – a breeze after all of that high altitude running, just like for the elites! 🙂

    Best wishes on your journey and happy running!

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