A Southern Runner Tests His Fitness At 4,350 Feet Of Elevation

Updated: Nov 11

For a life-long athlete and now avid runner, a few training days at elevation shouldn't be a problem, right? It was breathtaking. Overwhelming how the light bounced off the red cliffs. Each moment was more stunning than the next. Far from the lush, tree-laden trails of the east coast, Sedona, AZ, boasts more than 200 trails, spiderwebbing through the canyons. The air crisp with low humidity made the 85+ degree days bearable, without strain. It's a dream destination for trail running. I planned to take full advantage of training in a new environment, with new obstacles and challenges, primarily testing how my fitness would fare 3,600 feet above my typical training conditions in the South.

At 750 feet above sea level, Charlotte, NC, is an excellent location to train for many endurance events. The air consists of 20.9% oxygen, allowing optimal gas exchanged to support endurance athletes' efforts. It's relatively easy to recover from hard training sessions, and the risk to conditions such as altitude sickness is nearly obsolete. Once an athlete reaches 8,000 feet above sea level, serious consideration must be taken to acclimate the body to avoid a potentially life-threatening emergency.

As a runner climbs, the decreased pressure and reduce oxygen levels leads to diminished muscle functions. Dehydration becomes a significant concern as well as risk of symptoms such as headache, lethargy, dizziness, fatigue, and vomiting.

Sedona, perched just over 4,300 feet of elevation, was an excellent location to determine if I could manage the change of environment or if adjustments to the training plan would be needed. With approximately 18% oxygen levels, I expected training to be taxing but manageable with my current fitness levels.

The first day of training was a gut check and a nod to those that train consistently in these conditions.

Shortness of breath caught up to me one hundred yards down the trail. Less than two minutes into the run, I was struggling. It felt as if I had been completing wind sprints at the end of practice. My heart rate had spiked, I was panting, and my watch rewarded my efforts with an average pace of 10:45 seconds per mile estimate, nearly three minutes slower than my easy efforts back home. So I walked.

As I collected myself and my breath, I contemplated my aspirations going into this trip. I knew it would be a drastic change, but I was confident that I could manage a 9:30 - 10:00 average over the smooth portions of the trails. Having numerous friends and a coach who trains regularly at elevation, I'd heard talk of the difficulties of adjusting to elevation, but had I really listened?

I imagined what it would be like if I invited a mountain runner to join me at home. Would I be able to keep up? Or would the significantly increased oxygen levels give them freakish levels of fitness, likely leaving me in the dust? Olympians born, raised, and train at 7,000 feet, what does it feel like to travel to lower-level destinations? How difficult would it be for them to break a sweat? Many thoughts toyed with emotions, but the beautiful backdrop pulled me into the moment.

With guidance, the next training day, we threw pace, time, and distance out the window. Again, walking more often than not and still plagued by shortness of breath, I focused on high cadence and dropped arm swing to relieve tension and effort. It was tiring, but better than the previous days' efforts. Running at elevation isn't something to be taken lightly.

Below are estimated from two recent training sessions by location.

Charlotte, NC Sedona, AZ

Elevation: 761’ Elevation: 4,350’

Pace: 8:19/ mile Pace: 11:59/ mile

Distance: 7.24 miles Distance: 5.08 miles

Average HR: 151 Average HR: 157

Max HR: 175 Max HR: 187

This experience was well worth it, and I challenge other amateur athletes to opt for a destination vacation at elevation. Second, to be rewarded with spectacular views, it’ll be an experience to mimic the training environments of some of the great endurance athletes of our generation.