I’m no scientist, but I can tell the difference between “easy to breathe” and “hard to breathe”.
I live and train in Draper, Utah. The altitude is about 4,500 feet, probably 4,600 feet where I live. My parents live in Arcadia, CA, which is at 479 feet. I started doing triathlons in 2007, and this is the first time since 2008 that I have done any training in California. In other words, most of my triathlon career has been spent training in Utah, at altitude. And when I did any training here in California, it was very minimal, as in perhaps one four-mile run. I also weighed about 30 lbs more back then, and didn’t have a clue what I was doing and therefore didn’t pay much attention to how I felt when running–I just went out and ran.
I haven’t done any testing or anything sophisticated this time around, I just came down to spend Christmas with my folks and since I was going to be here for a few weeks I brought my bike and run gear. So, did I notice any difference training here in California, 4,000 feet lower than in Draper, Utah? I don’t like to swear, but heck yeah!
My first run down here was a 15 mile loop. It was pretty flat, with perhaps a total elevation gain of 100 feet at a very slight grade. That made it easier than running in Draper where I’m primarily doing hills. But even adjusting for the lack of hills, this was the easiest 15 mile run I’ve ever done in my life. My muscles got sore enough, but when it came to breathing, I never felt like I was breathing hard at all. I never felt like I had to rest at all, or walk any part of the way–it was just super, super easy. But I chalked it up as a fluke.
Then I went on a bike ride. Again, it was on a very flat ride down the San Gabriel river trail towards Seal Beach (a very nice ride, by the way), out and back. I wasn’t tracking my distance, that is I wasn’t looking at my distance during the ride, I just went to where I was running out of time and then turned around and rode home. I haven’t ridden for more than an hour in months. I rode for about three hours, 48 miles, and it was a piece of cake. It felt leisurely. I got a little saddle-sore, and my neck was sore from holding it up on a tri bike for that long, but breathing was easy, and my muscles didn’t get very tired (even though I neglected to bring any nutrition or liquids, not expecting to ride that far or long).
I’ve now done two more 7 mile runs, and those were super easy as well. I can only come to one conclusion–altitude really, really, REALLY makes a difference. I can’t point to anything else that has changed, and yet the effort I’m putting into these workouts is very noticeably less than what I usually put in while in Utah.
So what do I do about this? Well, perhaps I should think about doing more races in California, but keep the training in Utah.