Tips about preparing for altitude, heat and jet lag

An ultra-marathon is any race that is longer than 42km. However, it seems that most ultra-marathons have other features that make them "ultra" beyond the distance. Often races take place in extreme climates and in unique locations that bring about challenges not faced in shorter races or during regular training. Examples are races that take place in the desert, jungle, at altitude, or some combination of all three.

Conditions like these need some specific preparation.

It's possible to prepare for these races by training specfically for them and building a program around the challenges of the distance, vertical gain and equipment needs. Unfortunately being fitter and stronger sometimes doesn't prepare an athlete for some of the "ultra" factors that arise in the race. I think that there are three key factors to take into consideration which I consider "non-training" factors as they fall outside the usual training metrics of distance, time, intensity and vertical gain. These factors are the altitude of the race, the temperature and climate, and the time zone. Incorporating a few additional activites into race preparation can make a huge performance difference and often doesn't require that much effort.

Here are my preparation rules that I've put together based on studies that I've read and experience of preparing for various races in the past.


A lot of races in the mountains occur at altitude and other races also start at altitude (the Atacama Crossing and Jungle Ultra both started higher than 3,000m). This is a challenge for almost anyone and especially athletes who live at sea level. For a single-day race it's possible to "trick" the body and arrive as close to the start of the race and then race right away without any acclimatization. The stresses of the race and the altitude are all combined and the altitude is not as noticable. Obviously this is not possible for a multi-stage race as the first stage may be OK, but later stages will seem very tough as the body is trying to adapt to the altitude during the race.

The best protocol is to spend 12 to 18 days at the race altitude or at an altitude higher than the race. I did this before the Atacama Crossing and it made a huge difference for me. I could hear the other competitors breathing hard during the first kilometers of the first stage when they shouldn't have been working hard yet and I felt just as I would during a normal training run at home. In addition to spending time at the race altitude it can help to take an iron supplement to allow the body to generate additional red blood cells during the adpatation phase. This is the best acclimatization protocol that I'm aware of, however, it might not be that practical for everyone.

The next best option is to try and replicate the conditions before traveling to the race. Altitude camps of shorter duration during the months leading up to the race can be effective in improving red blood cell count. Another option that I've heard to be effective is sleeping in an altitude tent. It replicates the high altitude while sleeping and the body adapts during rest. These options can be useful, but are also not that easy to achieve in everyday life.

If neither of the two previous options are possible then the best bet is to try a few on-the-spot remedies when arriving at altitude. Cocoa tea seems to help and aspirin has an impact on the blood's composition as well as reducing any altitude headaches.

Races at high altitude can be very hard on the body.

Heat acclimatization

The heat and humidity of a race venue can have a huge impact on race performance especially if traveling from a different hemisphere (from winter at home to a summer race). In the desert or jungle then heat management is going to play a huge role in race success.

The best protocol is to spend time at the race venue in the race conditions leading up to the race. I believe that about 10 hours of adaptation in the two weeks before the race can lead to 100% adaptation for the conditions. Sometimes this is difficult even at the race venue as a good training program will have a taper of reduced training volume. It's a balance and can be managed, but be sure to hydrate well during the adaptation phase. Again, this might not be the most practical or feasible way to prepare for the conditions.

It's possible to achieve the 10 hours of heat adaptation at home through other methods. I've used Bikram yoga (yoga in a room at 42C) to great success. I have also heard that training in a heat chamber can be very effective for adaptation if it's available. Using a sauna may be another option that could work.

If none of these options are available or practical, the best alternative is to train during the hottest part of the day. It may not be a close replica of the race conditions, but a run in 20C in the early afternoon is still better than a run at 10C during a cool morning or evening.

Preparing for race conditions with a training camp at the race location.

Time zones

Jet lag can pose a problem if traveling to a distant race. Apart from the stress of the travel and being in an unfamiliar environment, the change in time zones can reduce the quality and quantity of sleep in the vital days before the race. My rule of thumb for changing time zones is to allow one day of adaptation per hour time zone changed. This means spending time at the race venue before the race or in a similar time zone.

If traveling to the race time zone is not possible a similar adaptation can be produced by changing a regular sleep schedule by an hour a day to more closely resemble the race time zone. If traveling east, starting waking up and going to bed earlier, if traveling west, start waking up and going to bed later. Gradually adjust the sleep schedule in the weeks before the race until it's as close to the race time zone as practically possible.

These various tactics can be used together or individually depending on the race demands. For a race at altitude in the desert in a distant time zone then arriving 12 days before the race allows for adaptation to the altitude, running the final training sessions during the hottest part of the day at the race venue will allow for heat acclimatization and 12 days should be more than enough to cover any time zone changes. If it's not possible to travel that early before the race, then 5 to 10 Bikram yoga sessions in the two weeks leading up to the race, taking an iron supplement and drinking cocoa tea while adjusting the sleep routine will be far more effective than not doing anything at all.

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