Breathing Thin Air: A Sea-Level Runner’s Guide to Trail and Mountain Ultra Marathons

For sea-level athletes venturing into the world of ultra marathons set in trails and mountains, the journey is not only a physical test but also a thrilling exploration of diverse terrains and elevations. In this guide, we’ll delve into the unique challenges faced by sea-level runners tackling trail and mountain ultra marathons, and outline a specialized training approach to prepare for the altitude changes and rugged landscapes that lie ahead.

Understanding the Altitude Challenge:

  1. Altitude Adjustments:

    • Acknowledge the impact of increased elevation on your body’s oxygen intake and adjust your training accordingly.
    • Gradually acclimate to higher altitudes by incorporating altitude-specific training strategies.
  2. Terrain Dynamics:

    • Trail and mountain ultra marathons present varying surfaces, including rocky trails, steep ascents, and descents.
    • Train on similar terrains to build the necessary strength, agility, and proprioception.
ultra marathon training

Ultra Marathon Training Plan:

  1. Altitude Adaptation Runs:
    • Plan training runs at higher elevations to adapt your body to reduced oxygen levels.
    • If possible, incorporate specific trail sections of the race route to familiarize yourself with the terrain
  2. Hill Training with Mountainous Challenges:
    • Prioritize hill workouts to mimic the elevation changes of mountainous races.
    • Focus on both uphill and downhill training to build strength and resilience.
  3. Specificity in Long Runs:
    • Schedule long runs on trails and mountain paths similar to the race course.
    • Include elevation gains and losses to simulate race-day conditions.
  4. Technical Trail Running:
    • Develop technical trail running skills, including navigating rocks, tree roots, and uneven surfaces.
    • Incorporate agility drills to enhance your ability to adapt to the unpredictable trail conditions.

Mental Preparation:

  1. Visualization in Mountainous Landscapes:

    • Visualize success by imagining yourself conquering the mountainous trails.
    • Cultivate a positive mindset by focusing on the breathtaking views and the sense of accomplishment that awaits.
  2. Mindfulness in Nature’s Playground:

    • Practice mindfulness during training to stay present and attuned to your surroundings.
    • Embrace the serenity of nature to foster mental clarity and reduce anxiety about the challenging course.

Gear and Nutrition Considerations:

  1. Trail-Specific Gear:

    • Invest in trail running shoes with proper traction for varied surfaces.
    • Consider lightweight and moisture-wicking clothing suitable for unpredictable mountain weather.
  2. Nutrition for Altitude:

    • Adjust your nutrition plan to account for the increased calorie expenditure at higher altitudes.
    • Stay vigilant about hydration, recognizing that dehydration can occur more rapidly in mountainous conditions.

Our coaches at Altitude Athletic Training are experts in ultra-marathon training and simulated altitude training. Schedule a time to meet with one of our coaches and learn about the benefits for you:

5 Insane Outdoor Adventure Races

Outdoor adventure races are the ultimate test of your physical and mental limits. These races take you to breathtaking, remote locations where you’ll push yourself to the max. In this post, we’ll explore five insane outdoor adventure races around the world that will put your skills and endurance to the test.

1. The Barkley Marathons – Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, USA

The Barkley Marathons is known as one of the toughest ultramarathon races on the planet. The race unfolds over 100 miles through the rugged wilderness of Frozen Head State Park, featuring a brutal vertical gain of over 59,000 feet. This event is not for the faint of heart, requiring extensive trail running and endurance preparation. High altitude training can also be beneficial to build the stamina necessary for this grueling race.

    2. The Jungle Ultra – Peru

    If you’re looking for a race that combines trail running and a truly unique setting, the Jungle Ultra in Peru is a fantastic choice. This multistage race takes participants through the Amazon rainforest. Endurance is key as you cover over 140 miles through the challenging terrain and humidity. Additionally, integrating strength training into your preparation is essential to withstand the physical demands of this race. Building strength in your core, legs, and upper body will not only help you tackle steep inclines and uneven terrains but also improve your overall performance, making you more resilient in the challenging conditions of the Jungle Ultra.

    trail running

    3. The Coastal Challenge – Costa Rica

    For those who thrive in tropical conditions, The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica is the adventure race of your dreams. This 236-kilometer race guides runners along the country’s coastline, through dense jungles, and across pristine beaches. Trail running expertise is vital, as is preparation for the intense heat and humidity.

    4. The Dragon’s Back Race – Wales, UK

    The Dragon’s Back Race is an iconic adventure racing event that traverses the rugged terrain of the Welsh mountains. This five-day stage race covers 315 kilometers, with steep ascents and descents. High-altitude preparation can help participants adapt to the challenging elevation changes, and ultramarathon training is a must to tackle this demanding race.

    5. The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) – France, Italy, and Switzerland

    The UTMB is the holy grail of ultramarathon races. This 171-kilometer race circumnavigates Mont Blanc, taking participants through high mountain passes and steep trails. Altitude preparation is crucial due to the race’s high-altitude sections. The UTMB is a test of endurance and trail running skills like no other.

    insane outdoor adventure races


    How To Train for Outdoor Adventure Races

    If you’re based in Toronto and are looking to prepare for these epic adventures, consider specialized training at Altitude Athletic Training. Altitude offers personalized programs that can help you improve your endurance, trail running abilities, and high-altitude adaptation.

    Here’s how Altitude can benefit you:

    • Personalized Training: Work with a coach on a program tailored to your specific adventure race goals. Whether it’s ultramarathon training, high altitude preparation, or trail running, we’ve got you covered.

    • Specialized Training Environment: Altitude Athletic Training recreates high-altitude conditions, allowing you to adapt to lower oxygen levels and replicate the demands of your expedition, which is essential for races like the UTMB and Barkley Marathons. This helps boost your endurance and performance at both sea-level and high-altitude settings.

    These five insane outdoor adventure races around the world offer a unique opportunity to challenge your physical and mental limits. With proper ultramarathon training, high altitude preparation, and strong guidance, you can embark on these incredible journeys. So, lace up your trail running shoes and start your adventure racing journey today!

    Altitude training for injured runners

    Are you a runner dealing with injuries? Altitude training could be your best friend

    Most runners have been injured, and it’s a dreadful part of sport. We spend hours pool running. We do endless glute bridges. And we watch our friends leave for runs and disappear into the abyss just like our abs. We get bored out of our minds, and stressed about losing the fitness we worked so hard to build.

    As we lope and mope on the local gym’s elliptical machine, we think of three things:

    How can I make cross-training less boring?

    How can I maintain fitness?

    Is this thing ever going to heal?

     Thankfully, there might be an answer to these questions that has nothing to do with stepping foot into the pool with an aqua belt.


    Altitude training could be your most valuable cross-training tool. Here’s how:

    Research shows that low-oxygen (hypoxic) training increases red blood cell count, which facilitates oxygen transport to the working muscles. Better oxygen transport can lead to more aerobic benefits (which can help us maintain fitness when we are injured) and decreased injury recovery time. As well, seeking out a new method of cross-training can be mentally refreshing, and can make our time away feel less terrible.

    Plus, no matter where you are on the injury spectrum, altitude training can be your ally.


    The Injury Spectrum

    How might altitude training be helpful to you

    Injury Prone

    You’re not injured right now, but you push your limits and regularly find yourself sidelined. Maybe it’s pesky runner’s knee, or notoriously weak hips (they especially don’t lie when you’re a runner). You want to keep making gains, but you struggle handling your workload before a nagging “issue” turns into a full-blown problem. Do a portion of your training at altitude instead in order to maximize your time on your feet without additional stress to your weak spots. Your 75-minute run can become a 60-minute hypoxic run. Similar aerobic stimulus, less pounding.

    On the Comeback

    You are returning to training, and can only handle half your regular volume. Because you are doing less than what you are used to, you find it difficult to gain much fitness. Doing that reduced volume at hypoxia can produce physiological stimulus that will let you get fit at a faster rate. This way you can get back up to speed in a reasonable timeframe. See training at altitude as the bridge to get you back to your full volume of running again, but safely.


    running your fastest 5K

    Short-term Sideline

    It’s the middle of your season, and you are in the shape of your life, and you are told to back off for three weeks. Not enough to kill the race goal, but enough to lose your edge. You don’t want to take time off, and you want to keep building fitness. For a short period, use an alternative form of training to maintain your fitness. Do it in low-oxygen conditions, and you might not miss a beat—red blood cell count and oxygen transport tends to spike after three weeks to a month of hypoxic training. You may actually come out of this mini-pause in your run training fitter than before. Plus, it’s a great excuse to try something new.

    Out for the Season

    You are riding great fitness, and come down with a pretty serious injury, say, a muscle tear or the dreaded stress fracture. You might be off for a few months, but you are motivated to stay fit. In the past, you’ve put in two to three hours of work on the bike or in the pool per day to get enough aerobic stimulus, only to come back to running with bike legs (this is when you discover how strong your quads can get) or pool arms (swimming reminds runners that a bit of upper body is perhaps not a bad thing).

    But how can you maintain fitness for two months, without coming back with a body that would rather swim or cycle than run? Do that cross-training at altitude, and get the desired aerobic stimulus without having to cross-train excessively. This approach will also free your afternoon for more glute bridges or planks (which can be done at altitude as well). You’re welcome.

    Far Gone

    You have been injured for a long time, and feel like you have lost all fitness. Generally, the more unfit you are, the greater the results of hypoxic training. Use our training methods as your first step back to action, either on your own terms during our open gym time, or with the help of a coach and a personalized training plan.

    If you are injured and want to get back to competition in a more effective and less painless way, give Altitude Athletic a try. If nothing else, it’s way more fun and adds stimulus than staring at the wall of your local pool for an hour.

    Let’s talk about how altitude training can help you with your running injury. Schedule a time to meet with one of our expert Altitude coaches.

    High Altitude Training Camps – How much do they cost?

    Elite runners will do blocks of training in high-altitude locations like Flagstaff, Arizona (2,106 m), Aspen, Colorado (2,438 m) or even all the way to the “Home of the Champions” in Iten, Kenya (2,400 m). Why go the distance to run at high elevations? To stimulate a process called erythropoiesis. Erythropoiesis is the process that produces red blood cells in the body, expanding oxygen carrying capacity and resulting in improved endurance, stamina and aerobic performance.

    And the records show that altitude training does in fact work. According to Runner’s World, 95% of all medalists at the world championships and the Olympic Games since 1968 have either lived or trained at altitude.

    Do you have to be an elite athlete to train at altitude? No! It’s a common misconception about altitude is that it’s only for elite athletes or people competing at altitude. But the benefits of altitude training can also be enjoyed and achieved by regular people and recreational runners looking to enhance oxygen transport/uptake for improved stamina and aerobic capacity.




    The struggle for us regular people (who live at sea-level and don’t have mountain just around the corner) isn’t whether or not altitude training can yield benefit. It is physically getting to altitude itself.

    In most cases, these elite athletes have the time and support to head to elevation for a performance boost.  But when it comes to those of us who aren’t quite professionals – but still take our training very seriously – we often don’t have that luxury. Most of us can only get away for a week or two at a time – which isn’t even enough to fully reap the benefits of a high altitude training experience (research says it takes about a month for physiological changes to occur).

    Indeed, there is a lot of time and money involved when it comes to high altitude training camps. Whether it be as part of a structured high altitude training camp for runners, an individual, self-guided trip, or a practice expedition to prepare for an upcoming climb.

    Since altitude training can be so beneficial for athletes of all levels, and this is something very desirable amongst the running and endurance athlete community, we wanted to get an idea of how much this kind of trip would cost. Check out what we learnt:



    *Note prices may vary throughout the year, these are based on Late Summer-Early Fall

    Camp #1 – Running Mecca Boulder Summer Training Camp

    • Location: Boulder, Colorado, USA.
    • Elevation: Approximately 6,614 feet (2,015 meters).
    • Duration: 7 days.
    • Type of Training Camp: Trail Running Camp.
    • What’s Included:
        • Guided trail runs: 10 sessions.
        • Long run: 1 session.
        • Track workouts: 2 sessions.
        • Airport transportation (pick-up and drop-offs).
        • Lunch daily.
        • One-on-one coaching by Olympic Runner and Head Coach Luis Orta, and support coach Hiruni Wijayaratne.
        • Classroom sessions: Covering mobility, stretching, warm-up, cool-down, running form, strides, drills, race strategy, and mental strength.
        • Weekend exploration: Discover the beauty of Boulder and its vicinity with local market visits and downtown Boulder lunches.
        • Small group experience: Limited capacity for a personalized and fun training camp.
    • Not included:
        • Airfare to Boulder, Colorado.
        • Meals during the camp.
        • Athlete accommodation.
    • Pricing Options:
      • Pay in full: $750 USD.
      • Monthly installments: Reserve your spot with $250 USD

    Camp #2 – Rob Krar Ultra Camp

    • Location: Flagstaff, Arizona.
    • Elevation: Approximately 6,614 feet (2,015 meters).
    • Duration: 4-5 Days
    • Type of Training Camp: Trail Running Camp.
    • What’s Included:
        • Guided trail runs: Over a variety of terrains, distances, and altitudes.
        • All meals are included
        • Small group experience: Generous individual attention.
        • Coaching: Learn from experienced trail runners.
        • Open to all abilities: From beginner to intermediate experience levels
    • Not Included
      • Airfare to Flagstaff, Arizona
    • Costs
        • $2,100/person for private room
        • $1,875/person for shared room
        • A non-refundable deposit of $200 due at registration.

    Camp #3 – Kenya Experience Running Camp

    Location: Iten, Kenya

    Elevation: 2,400 meters (7900 feet)

    Duration: 2 weeks

    Type of Training Camp: Running Camp for All Levels

    What you get:

      • Guided Runs: You’ll run daily with local guides on the same trails as Kenyan greats.
      • Practical Workshops: Learn from top Kenyan runners and coaches.
      • Cultural Immersion: Gain unique insider access to the lives of Kenya’s runners.
      • Inspiring Location: Explore endless dirt trails and enjoy breathtaking views across the Great Rift Valley.
    • What’s Not Included:
        • Flights: You’ll need to arrange your own flights to Kenya.
        • Personal Expenses: Any additional personal expenses are not covered.
    • Costs:
          • The camp fee is £1350 (British pounds) per person.
          • This includes full board accommodation, all coaching, and activities during the camp.

      These are all top notch camps with great amenities in stunning locations. And they are designed to help athletes of all levels experience the benefits of training in real high-altitude conditions. However, taking 7 days at any one of these camps is not cheap. Based on our research – the average cost (assuming you are leaving from Toronto) is around ~$3700 CAD – taking into account basic transport, lodging and meal requirements.

      altitude fitness classes toronto


      So, how can we trigger the benefits of altitude training closer to home? A good solution is simulated altitude training. Simulated altitude training involves exercising in or simply inhaling the oxygen-reduced air that you find at high altitudes. Simulated altitude is created by decreasing the percentage of oxygen in the air (normal atmospheric air consists of 20.9% oxygen).

      There are different ways you can do it. For example, you can purchase a hypoxic training mask (NOT the altitude masks that just restrict air intake) for stationary exercise. You can place a hypoxic tent over your bed to get the benefits of longer term passive exposure. Or you can train mask-free in a simulated altitude gym – like what we offer here at Altitude Athletic Training. Read more about the science and benefits of the different types of altitude training and exposures here.

      And if you’re wondering what to expect from a pricing perspective, in most cases you will most certainly be paying less for simulated altitude training at home than the altitude camp comparison. For instance, a three month membership at Altitude with personalized fitness programming, unlimited facility access and fitness testing will cost you $400 CAD per month. Check out the membership details here. This would be a great (and more cost effective) alternative for those of us who don’t quite have the funds (or time) to jet off for a run in the mountains.

      So what exactly is a Red Blood Cell? And what does it do?

      If you have been around endurance sports for long enough, you’ve definitely heard a coach, a training partner, or a Tour de France broadcaster mention something about red blood cells and how they are important for aerobic exercise. But, what are they, really? And how do they work?

      Red blood cells (also called erythrocytes) are miniature concave saucers, and exist in trillions in our blood stream. Their main function is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the working muscles. They are important, because muscles need oxygen to perform aerobic exercise.

      Red blood cells move oxygen with the help of haemoglobin, a red protein that gives the cells its colour. Millions of haemoglobin molecules bind, or grab, four oxygen molecules in the blood. Then, the red blood cells shuttle the molecules to working muscles.

      Look at it this way: if we are oxygen, red blood cells are public transit. The more shuttles we have, the more efficiently we get to where we want to go.

      The more red blood cells we have the more haemoglobin we can carry the more oxygen we can transport to working muscle the better our muscles exercise the slower we tire.

      Recap: if you’re an endurance athlete, you want those red blood cells.

      But, can we control the amount of red blood cells that we have? Can we train our bodies to make more?

      Red blood cell count is in part genetically determined, but yes, it can be manipulated. The body can start producing more red blood cells when exposed to low-oxygen (or hypoxic) conditions. Here is how it works:

      Does erythropoietin (or EPO) sound familiar to you? Think of Lance Armstrong confessing to Oprah about illegally using extra doses of it, nearly 10 years ago.

      We don’t have to be doping to use EPO: we each have a natural source of this good stuff inside of us. When little oxygen is available in our surroundings, the kidneys secrete EPO, which binds to cells in the bone marrow that produce more red blood cells.

      In short: Exposure to a low-oxygen environment can increase red blood cell count, and increasing red blood cell count can improve aerobic performance.

      Runner exercising outside with a mountain view

      How to increase my own red blood cell count:

      It is common practice to train at altitudes of 6,000 to 10,000 feet, in order to increase red blood cell count. Individuals can see an initial spike in red blood cell count as early as 24 to 48 hours after the first training bout at altitude, and tend to see a real change after three weeks to a month of low-oxygen training. That is why it is common to hear of athletes training at altitude for a month, before coming down to race. Read more about the science behind altitude training here.

      How do I know if my red blood cell count is increasing?

      A simple blood test can reveal your hematocrit, which is the ratio of your volume of red blood cells to the total volume of your blood. This value can reflect changes in your red blood cell count. We recommend that you regularly monitor your blood profile when training in a low-oxygen environment, so that you can understand how you are responding to the training.

      Keep in mind: Before you experiment for yourself, know that changes in red blood cell count might vary with the elevation at which you choose to train, the fitness and training background of athletes, and the person to person variability of EPO production.

      The bottom line: If you fancy getting faster, training up high and tapping into your very own natural source of red blood cells (I said natural, Lance) is absolutely worth a try.

      What it’s like to cycle through the Pyrenees

      The Pyrenees, a spectacular mountain range, beckons cyclists from all over the world with its challenging climbs and breathtaking scenery. One of our clients is an avid cyclist and recently tackled a cycling trip through the Pyrenees in June. He shared his experience and trip itinerary with us to shed some light on what it’s like to cycle through the Pyrenees.

       The Goal

      We set off on an epic cycling adventure through The Pyrenees mountain range of France (and Spain) organized by Magic Places. The goal: “…have some fun with friends, see some great sights, and get into better shape.”

      The trip started in Toulouse, but the actual riding would start in the seaside town of Biarritz and finish in Carcassone, with difficult climbs and spells of inclement weather to tackle in between. There were 10 rides in total, very few rest days, and a different place to stay every night. The elevation gain was significant, but so was the perseverance. At the end of the trip, the key discoveries were: “…dealing with the weather, encountering lots of livestock, keeping hydrated due to the elevation (5 large bottles of water per day), dealing with some difficult grades, eating some great food, and of course, taking care of each other.”

      Check out the full itinerary and trip photos below…

       The Route

      A 16-day trip through France (and Spain), showcasing some of the most pristine landscape in southwest Europe. The total distance travelled on the bike was 934.3 km and total elevation gain was 18,463 m. In total, it was 51 h 11 min of riding.

      The Challenge

      The Pyrenees – stunning and rural, and a thrilling challenge for cyclists. “We faced a lot of bumps between here and there…”

      The Journey: Framed by a Stunning Backdrop

      Whether your quads were burning from a seemingly never-ending climb or you were shedding layers from rapid changes in temperature – the scenery never failed to disappoint. Take this 102 km ride from Isaba to Pau for example…

      Gorgeous ride: 1513 m of climbing, a 26 km climb to start the day, green mountains, snow at the summit, road followed the river, goats, cows and horses on road.(from Strava)

      Col d’Aspin

      “Beautiful day, more climbing…”

      When cycling uphill, your rate of deceleration actually increases due to the impact of gravity on momentum. So you have to push your pedals at a constant effort throughout the climb to avoid a dramatic reduction in speed. Altitude is also a factor. You’ll find it harder to breathe because oxygen is no longer as easily available to your body. This can be particularly noticeable for those who have limited experience cycling at altitude, and those of us living at sea level. Indeed the guys on the trip who were from Calgary seemed to have a bit of an advantage when it came to the big climbing days (Calgary is at 1045 m).


      “Lunchtime, bikes parked…”

      Re-fuelling is extremely important during a trip like this. Fortunately, the food in France is delicious. Midday stops in rural French towns allow for lengthy lunch breaks and great meals. Those calories are certainly going to good use!

      Col du Tourmalet

      “The big climb…”

      We’ve reached the highest point of our ride. This is the most utilized of any peak in the Tour de France. Le Geant de Tourmalet is one of two statues found on the summit. This ride was actually delayed by a day due to the rain and fog which would have made it almost impossible to see the peak.

      An Epic ride: Strava stats from the big climb

      Distance: 128.31 km

      Moving Time: 7:12:16

      Elevation: 3,685 m

      Gorgeous sunny day for popular Tour de France climbs Col d’Aspine, Col du Tourmalet and Col de Peyresourdes. 3085 m of climbing. (Strava)

      Challenge Conquered

      There is always more to altitude to gain…”

      It’s always a great feeling seeing the route you conquered and looking through the Strava stats that show your hard work. There’s always more mountains to climb and landscapes to explore.

      For those looking to elevate their cycling skills and undergo intensive cycling training, the Pyrenees offer a formidable challenge. Cyclists on a Pyrenees cycling tour will encounter steep gradients, hairpin turns, and heart-pounding climbs that test endurance and willpower. Climbs like the Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque are iconic among those seeking cycling training, and conquering these passes is a badge of honor for many. The intense climbs in the Pyrenees are perfect for cyclists seeking to push their limits and improve their performance.

      If you’ve got a cycling trip coming up, we can help you prepare. Book a complimentary consult with one of our coaches to learn more: BOOK COACH CONSULT.