Gradients: Ethiopia has it all – flat, gently sloping, undulating, steep.
Surfaces we train on: Hard-mud earth, forest tracks, grassy meadows, gravel paths, a 400m gravel race track and, sparingly, asphalt. Below are some photos of our club athletes, visiting runners and Ethiopia-based runners training on a variety of gradients and surfaces.
TRAINING AT ALTITUDE
Altitudes at which we train: 2,200m – 3,100m (7,200ft – 10,000ft) above sea level.
Acclimatising at altitude: Whatever your level of experience, it is sensible to allow four or five days after arriving at altitude before attempting any faster or intense running. Rather, gentle, steady running is recommended during this initial period. After three to four days, meanwhile, the body’s levels of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone which controls the production of red blood cells, begin to increase. You can then expect to start to feel the effects as your body adjusts, and any initial sluggishness or any slight breathlessness fades.
Benefits of training at altitude: Research suggests that EPO production peaks, and then levels off, after 25-30 days of altitude exposure. Therefore, any period of time between 4 and 30 days will bring about physiological adaptations, these being more marked the longer the exposure. While you will still experience benefits if you stay at altitude for longer than 30 days, the altitude no longer serves as a stimulus for increased EPO production. To experience increased EPO production beyond 30 days, you need to again change the stimulus – such as by continuing to increase training intensity, going to a higher altitude or returning to sea level for a short duration.
Running by feel: Ethiopian athletics ethos puts strong emphasis on running by feel over reliance on smart-watches and activity trackers (such as Garmin and Fitbit). Ethiopian coaches and athletes rarely use anything but a stopwatch, and they almost invariably grade sessions as simply ‘easy’, ‘medium’ or ‘hard’, mixed in with other specifics such as ‘interval’, ‘dagget’ (uphill), ‘gymnastic’ (dynamic stretching or core strengthening). This surprises some visitors, seeming simplistic and old-fashioned given the plethora of wristwatch-sized technology available nowadays. However, the attitude of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it‘ applies and the persistence of old-fashioned ways of doing things is a logical consequence of custom, altitude, variability in terrain, in-depth knowledge of training areas – and, of course, ongoing success in athletics as a nation. Another example of this trend is the continued use of the kilometer markers as start and end points for asphalt and gravel-road sessions.
If you do use a run tracker and compare session data with that of your regular training at lower altitudes (and, most likely, on more even terrain), you may feel confused or frustrated about the effort it seems to have taken to run a given distance or a given pace. At altitude, in other words, it is easy to be deceived into thinking that you are running too slowly when in fact you are working hard enough and executing good-quality training. This is especially the case during the first 7-8 days, after which time you should be able to train to a similar intensity to that of your normal training back home. Longer warm-ups and longer recoveries between hard efforts, however, are always recommended. Everybody responds to altitude differently, and the exact elevation of a given session will also impact your pace.
Based on the above, Run Africa therefore structures all of our training content using a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, ranging from zero to 5.5. We share this chart with all of our customers for reference as it details the physiological goals of each RPE level (aerobic, anaerobic, lactate threshold, recovery, stamina etc.).
Tips for maximising the benefits of training at altitude:
• Plenty of iron-rich food, such as injera, lentils, beans, potatoes, spinach and whole-grain bread.
• Plenty of antioxidant-rich food, such as onions, spinach, carrots, parsley, mangoes, tea and nuts.
• Plenty of fluids.
• Be prepared to run a little slower than you might be used to at lower altitude. Don’t try to rigidly enforce your ‘normal’ running pace. This includes not over-exerting yourself on uphill slopes, as well as allowing generous time for warm-ups and recovery. You may not feel the differences at first, but the benefits will come with patience and persistence – most markedly when you return to lower altitude.