Tips & Tricks for Running at High Altitudes
As I looked out my hotel window upon the gorgeous panorama before me, I could only begin to imagine the pleasure of seeing it up close and personally. I had touched down in Denver only hours prior, and the views of the mountains had already inspired me to explore the area in my free time. Now, I was gazing at the Flatiron Mountains looming over the grassy plains of the southeast side of Boulder, Colorado, and the urge became too much: I had to go for a run.

I exited the hotel somewhat nervous. I had never run at high altitude before, and there I stood at about 5,500 feet of elevation, inspired more by the mountain scenery than by the compulsion to get my run in for the day.

So I started out slowly, waiting patiently for the affects of the altitude to begin taking their toll. My goal was to go for a short run, nothing too crazy.

I only felt a slight heaviness in my legs so I began to pick up the pace. It wasn't until I reached my first formidable hill that I began to notice a sharp contrast from how my last run at home in Baltimore. Surprisingly, I wasn't too winded, but my legs--specifically my quads--were beginning to burn. And, as result, I was slowing down more than I was accustomed to. Likewise, the arid conditions were getting to me, and I was getting very thirsty. I should have hydrated better before I slipped on my running shoes. Lesson learned.

I had run about a mile and a half, and was planning to turn around soon. Yet, the Flatiron Mountains were becoming less of a distant view and more of a realistic destination. Despite my prior hesitation about expending my energy at altitude, I decided that I was going to get as close to the mountains as possible. And in the distance, I spotted a dirt trail that led me right to them.

A sign welcomed me to the "Coalton Trail Head," a trail loop that covered miles of mountainous terrain. I entered the trail with a cyclist, who seemed highly familiar with the trail.

"I'm not from around here," I quickly said to him. "How far does this trail go?"

"As far as you want it to," he said with a smile.

He must have seen a look of trepidation on my face and assured me of easy loops that I could take to truly enjoy the scenery.

"If this is your first time at a high altitude, then I hope you drank some water," he added. "And good luck with the hill up ahead."

I looked up and noticed a winding incline that didn't seem to menacing from a distance, especially with the Flatirons in the backdrop. I was sure that it would be larger than life when I reached the base of it. Off I went.

About three-quarters of a mile later, I had finally reached the hill, and the reality of Boulder's elevation set in quickly. It was a fairly steep hill, and my legs burned. I slow down like everyone else when it comes to cresting hills, but I was trotting up this one. It seemed like it took forever, and my quads were screaming at me for this one. And yes, this time, I was winded.

I was soon rewarded with an even more picturesque view of the mountains I had run to see. I pressed on, still recovering aerobically from my battle with the hill, and eventually reached a juncture where I had no choice but to go left. Heading in that direction would have brought me no closer to the mountains. It was time for a few pictures and a quick break before I schlepped back.

The run back felt much easier (mostly because it was a net downhill run), and the momentum I generated from running down that beast of a hill carried me further than I expected. Also, it seemed as if my lungs and legs were getting acclimated, even if just a little. I returned to my hotel room, feeling refreshed, and mapped my run. I had run about nine miles total, of which the back half was substantially faster than the first half. My pace for the run was slower than what I normally run at home, but the views were unbeatable.

My spontaneous, mountain-chasing run is among my all-time favorite aerobic journeys on which my feet have taken me. Though I wouldn't recommend a nine-mile run during your first experience at a high altitude, I can offer some helpful tips in case you find yourself running at higher elevations:

• Start out slowly. An accelerated effort will catch up to you quickly, and you should enjoy your first run at a greater elevation. Don't feel bad about adding 30 - 45 seconds (or even more) to your traditional run pace. If you are planning to run a race, try to plan your travels so that you have the proper time to prepare yourself aerobically and mentally.

• Hydrate! If you are running at greater altitudes, don't skimp on water. You may be in a more arid climate than you're used to. Also, you will be putting in more effort to achieve your standard run pace. Leaving yourself dehydrated won't make your transition from sea level any easier.

• Beware of uphills. Uphills are what stunned me the most. They aren't fun at sea level, and they're even more of a bear when you're thousands of feet in the air. Unless you're an absolute pain junkie, then my advice would be to take hills conservatively.

• Listen to your body. This should be observed during any run, but listen to your intuition even more intently when running at a higher altitude. Though it did not happen to me, some runners may be prone to headaches or, in more extreme cases, nausea at higher elevations. Remember that your health is more important than logging the extra miles.

• Incrementally increase mileage. It has been reported that it may take several weeks before your body becomes fully acclimated to living at a high altitude. Be sure to scale back your mileage and training accordingly. Slowly intensify workouts and add volume to avoid jarring your body.