By Becky Wade
June 30, 2017
If there’s one thing that the USATF Outdoor Championships confirmed, it’s that this summer is a scorcher. And I’m not just talking about performances by the leading ladies of the 10K or 5K meet record set by Paul Chelimo. With temperatures surpassing triple digits in host city Sacramento, there’s no telling how toasty it’ll be across the country as we get deeper into the season of sunburns and sweat.
What I’m getting at is: Now’s not a bad time to escape to the mountains.
But before I mislead anyone, let me assure you that training in uncomfortably warm conditions is not inherently a disadvantage. As a native Texan, I’ve done it for most of my life and have (I believe) benefitted from it. Studies back me up, suggesting that running in heat and humidity can increase perspiration rates, blood plasma volume, and skeletal muscle force while reducing core temperature and blood lactate—all good things.
However, as I recently suggested, training somewhere new and exciting every now and then is also a good thing—sometimes the very best thing. And right now, the crisp air, cool mornings, and huge temperature swings found at high elevations are hard to top. So with that in mind, I’ve assembled a list of six popular summertime altitude training spots in the U.S., ordered from highest to lowest elevation. If you don’t have much experience training up high or are limited by vacation days, I suggest starting at the lower end of the altitude spectrum. But if you’re going primarily for the experience and don’t plan on incorporating too much intensity, the whack-a-mole approach will work just fine!
Mammoth Lakes, California (7,880 ft)
Mammoth Lakes just may be the most decorated mountain town there is. Since its 2001 founding by Coaches Joe Vigil and Bob Larsen, the Mammoth Track Club has produced 12 Olympians, 64 National Champions and 24 American records (including Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall)—not bad for a town of less than 10,000 people. But you don’t have to be a world-class runner to absorb the Mammoth magic. The vast trail system, spectacularly located track, crystal clear lakes, and easy access to both higher and lower elevations make Mammoth a perfect place to train and recover with equal intensity. Recommended run: Shady Rest. Recommended refuel: Stellar Brew.
Green Church Road in Mammoth Lakes
Alamosa, Colorado (7,543 ft)
If you’re looking for a Spring Break-like atmosphere where you can both train and let loose… go straight to #3. But if you want a distraction-free environment at what many believe is the ideal training altitude, Alamosa is your spot. A little lower and a lot flatter than Mammoth Lakes due to its position in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is home to the historic Adams State running dynasty (also founded by Joe Vigil) and has the distinction of being the first host of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (prior to the 1968 Mexico Olympics). Several dozen contenders for Team USA spent two months training there in preparation for the Trials, and since then, many more have sought breakthroughs on those same dirt roads. Recommended run: County Road 6 (Tempo Road). Recommended refuel: Campus Café.
Park City, Utah (7,000 ft)
Though it’s best known as a skiing destination (that shared hosting duties with Salt Lake City during the 2002 Winter Olympics), you could be duped into thinking Park City was designed with runners in mind. Boasting hundreds of miles of trails that range from relatively flat to double-black diamond status, it’s no wonder that endurance athletes flock to this mountain town 30 miles outside of Salt Lake City when the weather turns warm, Bowerman Track Club runners included. If you’re looking to expand your repertoire with ultrarunning or mountain biking, Park City just may be your one-stop shop. Recommended run: Round Valley. Recommended refuel: Harvest.
Flagstaff, Arizona (6,909 ft)
If Mammoth Lakes is the most accomplished mountain town in terms of distance running, Flagstaff is currently the most concentrated. The permanent base for groups such as Northern Arizona Elite and Team Run Flagstaff and seasonal training spot for several other high-caliber groups and individuals, the well-maintained trail system in this Northern Arizona town rivals almost any other in the world. Lose yourself in the piney labyrinth, hammer out some solid road reps, or drop down to lower destinations like Sedona (4,300 ft) in less than an hour for speedier workouts. Recommended run: Lake Mary Road. Recommended refuel: Diablo Burger.
Boulder, Colorado (5,430 ft)
As a local, I may be biased, but Boulder’s summer training conditions are as close to perfect as I’ve experienced. Cool mornings morph into hot and sunny afternoons. Plus, there’s no shortage of options for runs: hard or soft; single-track or well-groomed; flat, hilly, or straight-up mountainous. Drive up the canyon to experience Magnolia Road of Running with the Buffaloes fame, or stick on any of Boulder’s local dirt trails, all of which are seemingly connected. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on your post-run refuel—the Boulder food scene in Boulder is almost as impressive as its running! Recommended run: Marshall Mesa. Recommended eat: Zeal.
Davidson Mesa in Boulder, Colorado
Albuquerque, New Mexico (5,312 ft)
Almost as sunny as a Colorado town, Albuquerque is an appealing training spot on many levels. Its blend of high desert and mountain climates offers spectacular conditions just about year-round—though arguably none better than in the summer months. Competitive runners from across the U.S. and far beyond (including teams from Kenya and Japan) settle in Albuquerque for pre-season stints, taking advantage of its vast trail network, proximity to indoor and outdoor tracks, and elevation that’s high enough to feel the burn, but not so high you need weeks to acclimate. In between runs, the city’s rich culture and history (not to mention green chile obsession and Breaking Bad affiliation) make Albuquerque a great place to vacation too. Recommended run: Trail 365. Recommended eat: El Patio.
Summer training doesn’t have to be monotonous. Clear out your schedule for a long weekend or a couple of weeks, sweet-talk a training partner or two, and hightail it to a mountain oasis. In a few months, you’ll be glad that you did.
Native Texan, Rice University grad, Colorado transplant. Specializing in the 3K Steeplechase and Marathon. Author of “Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe,” which is available on Amazon and wherever else you get your books.