Runner’s High: An Elevation Guide

You know that sinking feeling when – despite thinking you’re in pretty good shape – you go for a quick little run and can barely catch your breath?

We’ve all been there: you lace up all excited, expecting to knock your workout out of the park, but then you find yourself huffing and puffing with muscles and lungs who clearly decided not to show up to practice.

At least for me, it’s disheartening, discouraging and downright demoralizing. (This sentence brought to you by the letter D.)

Like me! The dog!

Well, that’s how I felt the last two weeks while vacationing with my siblings. I’d wake up early each morning to churn out a few easy miles with my brother, and within the first five minutes, find myself feigning a loose shoelace or side cramp in order to stop and catch my breath, which Simply. Couldn’t. Be. Caught.

So I was feeling pretty darned bad about myself and my clearly out-of-shape physique. But then we got back into wifi range and googled the elevation of our host country, and – guess what, folks: Mongolia is as high up in the sky as Denver. VINDICATION! (Also, surprise! I’ve been vacationing in the land of Genghis Khan. No big deal.)

Doing my best Lt. Dan impression.

Why does Mongolia’s elevation matter, you ask? Because the drop in barometric pressure at high altitudes decreases the amount of oxygen intake in each breath, which in turn lowers the amount of oxygen making its way to your muscles, which in turn makes working out super-duper tough (I believe that’s the medical term).

So what’s one to do if you find yourself in high elevation with legs itching to exercise? Plenty! Without further ado, here’s my guide to working out at high elevations in Mongolia, which maaaaay be slightly less useful than my guides to hydrating during races or training in the cold or literally anything else I’ve ever published ever.

But you can also apply these tips to non-Mongol movement, so maybe not so niche after all. Here’s some tips for staying fit when flying high:

  • Choose quality over quantity. You may want to log the 10-miler on your schedule, but if you find yourself in high elevation without time to get acclimated, better to check your expectations. For example, my first morning in Ulaanbaatar, my brother and I warmed up and then ran sprints in Sukhbaatar Square. Speed work’s a great workout anyways, but because of the built-in recovery breaks, it let us catch our breaths before the next 50-meter dash.
Not pictured: my empty lungs.
  • Stay hydrated. Evaporation occurs more quickly at higher altitudes (according to the internet – I have not independently factchecked this) so you’ll need to drink extra liquid to replenish what you lose. That’s doubly the case if you’re in the Gobi Desert. Might I recommend some freshly squeezed goat milk?
I’d say no goats were harmed in the taking of this photo but, let’s be honest, that can’t feel so good.
  • Take frequent breaks. If you find yourself short of breath, stop and catch it. While it’s tempting to power through, it’s safer to take a few minutes and do some light stretching or yoga while your muscles get a chance to refill their oxygen stores. No one’s timing you.


Taking a breather? Or staring longingly across the world in Ben’s direction?
  • Cross train instead. If running isn’t in the cards, there are plenty of other ways to keep fit while on the road. Do some body-weight squats and pushups, go for a hike, climb a mountain, dive into your ger headfirst when a dust storm hits, ride a camel. As long as you’re using your muscles in some shape or form, they won’t atrophy during a forced vacation from long runs. Trust me.
Also trust me that camels don’t like when you scratch their butts and make them think it’s a fly. Tom.

So there you have it: how to vacation in Mongolia without letting all fitness go by the wayside.

That said, it’s vacation, and if all you want to do on vacation is hang up your running shoes, sit back and smoke a cigar, I’m certainly not gonna stop you.

Christmas card?

Any more tips for running in high altitudes to share, friends?


One thought on “Runner’s High: An Elevation Guide

  1. I saw Denver got a shout out so had to make a comment. When are you and Lucile going to bring your workout regimen to the mile high city?

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