Getting Mentally Tough Does not Require High Altitude

Sometimes, you get the most interesting quotes and observations about sports psychology from non-psychologists or professional mental game coaches. In a Arizona Republic article on the Center for High Altitude Training in Flagstaff headed up by the legendary physiologist jack Daniels, a couple of key quotes probably overlooked by readers offer insights into performance improvement.

Jack Daniels Ph.D. is reknowned for his work with elite athletes and high altitude training. He is certainly an advocate of high altitude training as a means to improving your racing performance. His technical expertise and knowledge in physiology is beyond reproach. But it is two specific comments he made not really about training at altitude which caught my eye.

1. “It hurts to train at altitude. If that raises your pain tolerance level one notch when you go back to sea level, that same new willingness to deal with discomfort is associtaed with a little faster pace than it used to be. Psychologically you’re going to be better when you go down (to sea level).”:

2. As a much of a proponent of altitude training, he is even more sold on the benefits of training in the right environment. “I would say to you if you went to altitude to train but weren’t happy, you’d be better off not going, even if it’s beneficial.”

He underscores points previously explored on posts here on pain/discomfort. There are indeed psychological advantages which override the physiological. If we are going to explore the boundaries of our physical capabilities, we do need to be able to stretch the pain limits we have. We now know there is a strong mental component to our interpretation to the phenomenon of pain. We do not need to train at altitude to explore those limits. But it does take discipline and commitment regardless.

Similarly, in the scope of training and life in general, if we do not enjoy the process, it takes its toll. Our peace of mind, pleasure, sense of accomplishment are compromised. We cannot separate our sport and life psychology. Stress is additive. If you aren’t satisfied with your environment it will affect your running performance and progress. If you think that stress from your environment or your thoughts do not affect you physically, try this. Purchase or find someone who has a GSR2 biofeedback device. It is a wonderful tool that can vividly demonstrate that you can’t hide from stress or your negative thoughts.

The point is this:

If you want to race better don’t only train smarter but get your head into handling the discomfort that inevitably you will encounter at exploring your race boundary limits. That does not have to be done at altitude.

It is not about where you train, but it is about how you train and how you train your brain. In the mountains, valleys or in the plains you can do this. It does not have to be done at altitude.

There are far too many ways you will improve your running which do not include training at altitude. Until you have done all those things, my advice is to stop toying with the “idea’ of altitude training to get your next 5k or marathon PR and maximize what you do where you are!

2 comments on “Getting Mentally Tough Does not Require High Altitude”

  1. Lynden

    Great article! I liked the part about raising your pain tollerance in order to perform at higher levels. During my time in the Marine Corps, I ran a lot of miles. I found that the mental part of dealing with discomfort and pushing through pain was much more dificult than the physical part. I found that by holding regular mental practice (visualization) I could condition myself to deal more effectively with those mental bariers and could greatly improve my performance. Mental training is as important, if not more important, than physical training. However, both are needed.

    • Dean Hebert

      Lynden – right on… both are needed. And only through practice do we get better/stronger mentally… just as in physical training. Most people believe they have no choice or control over their mentality… they are so wrong.

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