Into thin air: How to train for altitude running

Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel talk about their acclimatisation, ahead of the Drakensberg Traverse.
Drakensberg Grand Traverse © Kelvin Trautman
By Jazz Kuschke

There are many dangers that line the route of the Drakensberg Grand Traverse. It's not just a physical challenge for Ryan Sandes and Ryno Griesel. There are deadly snakes and precipitous footpaths where a fall could be fatal. (Up until 1985, 55 people had died on the route.) Then there's the altitude. It's not a literal killer but it will be a silent enemy for the pair as they attempt to break the record.

Much of the route lies at an altitude above 3,000m, where they'll have just 75 percent of the oxygen to be found at sea level. Even for a short hike that makes it much more hard-going. But the pair will be running for over 200km.

“It will be a battle of the body, but more importantly, of the mind too,” says Mike Finch, editor of Runner’s World South Africa. “There are very few people in the world who would even dare to take on a challenge like this.”

Drakensberg Grand Traverse © Kelvin Trautman

“Altitude is going to be the biggest challenge,” says Ryan, “along with the weather – which is completely out of our control – so it’s been a big focus. The more time I can spend at altitude the better, especially living on the coast. Ryno lives in Johannesburg [1,753m] and altitude doesn’t seem to affect him too much whereas I tend to feel it a lot more.”

Ryan adds that the pair went training earlier in the week at Afriski in Lesotho which has an altitude of around 3,000m.

“You have to be careful to not overdo it,” he says. “You need to recover properly. With an attempt like this speed isn’t that important. It's more about endurance at altitude and that's what I've been working on.”

There are very few people in the world who would even dare to take on a challenge like this

“Obviously we’ve pushed our bodies quite hard recently,” says Ryno. “In the last week I did shorter high intensity sessions at altitude to push my body. The idea is to spend time at altitude and exert your body so that it’s forced to adapt, but not too much that you get ‘tired’. Then we need to rest enough so that we can adapt and generate the [oxygen-carrying] red blood cells.”

Drakensberg Grand Traverse © Kelvin Trautman

With the challenge just a couple of weeks away, the training focus of the guys now enters a tapering phase, where they'll wind down the intensity to ensure their bodies are recovered and ready for the epic trip.

“You want to bring down the volume and the distance but do just enough to keep your body active and sharp,” says Ryno. But different to a normal taper, we are doing this at altitude to force our bodies to adapt. “Next week we’ll be at altitude but not doing as much actual training.”

Ryan, meanwhile, is still recovering from his last big race and concentrating on making sure he's ready to stay the full distance.

“This is such a long attempt, if you kind of go into it and you feel a bit off for the first 12 hours that’s not such a bad thing,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind that. That will be a natural way to pace myself. For me the traverse only starts after Giant’s Castle which is about 118km in. I reckon it’s just survival until then."

Do you have questions for Ryan or Ryno?

Comment below and they will reply in our next article!

For more adventure, check out our Facebook fanpage.

read more about
Next Story