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February 28, 2017

Altitude Works in Mysterious (and Well-Documented) Ways

Paul Snyder and Scott Olberding team up to bring you the low down on high-altitude track meets.

You don’t need a PhD in altitude-ology to know that running long distances at a higher elevation is more challenging than doing so at sea level. And chances are, you also don’t need a masters degree in maps to know that the southwestern state of New Mexico is fairly mountainous.

This weekend’s USATF Indoor Championships are being held in Albuquerque, NM and at an elevation of 5,312 feet. Regardless of your highest level of educational attainment, go ahead and put two-and-two together: we can expect the distance races (the mile & two-mile) to be a tad slower. But by how much? And what about non-distance events? How will the altitude impact their results?

Well, fortunately for all of us, Citius Mag’s in-house stat-master, graph-maker and armchair-physicist, Dr. Scott Olberding knows a thing or two about track & field as well as conveying information in easy-to-digest chart form.

First up, we have the running events.

We should note that the following charts were created using data adapted from the a great study conducted by Michael John Hamlin from the University of New Zealand at Lincoln. It essentially gathered a ton of elite race results from around the world and then assigned a GPS location based on where the race was run and pulled the elevation. Pretty snazzy, right? Anyway, the link to the study above goes into the results in very great detail (seriously, you should read it) but the information we are interested in is those meets that were held around 1,500 meters of altitude, which converts to about 5,000 feet, which is approximately the altitude of Albuquerque. Neat!

(For mobile users, you can view the full graphic here.)

You’ll notice that distances below approximately 400 meters actually see improvements in their marks when altitude is introduced into the equation. You sea level-dwellers probably don’t realize it, but drag (or air resistance) constantly hampers your ability to  be your best self. At higher altitudes, there is less drag (the product in the equation) due to lower air density (our variable). Given this factor, plus short sprint races’ inherent inability to become tactical, it’s safe to say that many athletes in the 60 and 300 meter events could walk away with asterisk-anointed personal bests. It’s important to note in the above chart that the Standard Error at a 90% confidence interval is around +/- 0.5% for this study (for most of the observations), meaning that you shouldn’t agonize over the decimal points above and below, but rather conjecture over the broader trends.

The middle distances are trickier to predict. Nobody really knows how to race a 600 or 1,000 meter race and it seems as both races fields’ are filled with athletes used to training for and racing more standard distances like the 800 meter or mile. The 600 meters, from a science-y standpoint will be largely unimpaired by the effects of elevation. The 1,000 meters should be a little slower than if it’s run at sea level, but who knows, it could go all wacky and be faster too, if somebody makes the first couple of laps honest. [We’ll have more on the 1,000 tomorrow.]

This being a championship meet alone should make the distance events tactical. Tack on the thin air and mixed in with the fact that most competitors in both the mile and two-mile fields don’t train at elevation, you’re likely to see some very slow races with fast finishes. I can’t guarantee anything as comically sluggish as the men’s 5,000-meters at the 2013 USATF Outdoor Championships but I also won’t be shocked with a 70-plus second opening 400 meters for the men in either distance race in Albuquerque. Will Leer’s New Mexico soil record of 3:58.79, set in 2013,  just might live to see another year. The takeaway above from a mile perspective is that ceteris paribus, you can expect the men’s race to be run about 2% slower in Albuquerque than in, say, Des Moines, Iowa.

Another interesting trend here that emerges is that in the distance events, the men’s races appear to be effected slightly less than women’s races. This is likely due to the fact that the women’s races are generally slightly slower, and thus, their performances are even more subject to the lung crushing effect of the thinner air.

Next up, we’ve got the throws and the jumps. Whoa baby. These figures also come from the aforementioned study.

(For mobile users, you can view the full graphic here)

Again, it is important here to evaluate the broader trends. Keep in mind that our Standard Error is +/- 0.5%, so based on the above charts the effects of 5,000 aren’t zero, but they are on the lower side. Here, the general idea is that is easier to throw something through the air or sprint toward a high jump pit or gallop to the vault hole (?) with a giant stick in your hands due to lower air resistance. This is the same concept supporting the well-documented fact that it is easier to hit a home run in Denver than it is in Boston. Again, our friends drag and air density are at play.

So, the thinner air manifests itself in separate ways at 5,000 feet. For distance runners, they are encumbered by what they are breathing in, whereas the sprinters/throwers/jumpers are helped out by what they are running through (thin air). The earth is a beautiful place and it is always exciting to gather more information about what is happening and do our best to draw conclusions.

Also, if you plan to race in Albuquerque this weekend and will be using your albuterol inhaler, I recommend that you bring your therapeutic use exemption. Or just stick to breathe-right strips.

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