Many athletes might race at altitude and are curious what the best way to prepare is. Other athletes might want to utilize the boost to training performance altitude can elicit. Let’s dive into the facts.
What are the goals and benefits of altitude training?
- Other than the obvious goal of becoming more used to altitude effects for someone racing at altitude, the goal of using altitude during training is to increase performance by adapting the body to a lower oxygen environment. This results in a boost of blood volume and red blood cells, allowing the body to carry more oxygen which creates performance benefits even after returning from altitude.
- The most noticeable effect for an athlete training at altitude will be right at Lactate Threshold. Flushing lactate requires oxygen, so that will be the point in training when lower oxygen levels become very apparent, giving the sense of “hitting the wall.”
- Physiological effects of altitude training wear off over time (blood volume & red blood cell count will lower), but if done properly athletes can carry some of the fitness gains forward.
- The same goal of boosting blood volume can be accomplished with heat protocol. Creates the same physiological response. Can use this to prepare for altitude, or extend any performance gains when coming down from altitude.
Does altitude training work the same for all?
- A key point related to altitude acclimatization is that individual responses to altitude can vary dramatically. It is important to remember this and be aware of individual athlete response times.
- Athletes born/raised at higher elevations will typically be high responders and bounce back quickly when returning to altitude.
What are the risks related to altitude training?
- Altitude training can simply be a terrible idea for some athletes who respond really poorly to low-oxygen environments. Individual response matters!
- Once over 3,000-4,000 ft elevation recovery starts to become compromised and requires more time and attention. If an athlete is over 8,000 ft, they will require significantly increased time to recover.
- High-intensity training can be much harder to execute properly at altitude.
- Carbohydrate and hydration requirements increase at altitude.
- Overtraining, deep fatigue, or poor nutrition will limit the red blood cell cycle and compromise the positive adaptations from altitude. So if you can’t recover properly, it won’t do any good.
- Additionally, one should be aware that higher elevations may pose a greater risk of low iron and clots.
What should I do if I am racing at altitude?
- Aim to arrive either very early or arrive directly before the event (10 days vs 48 hours) to avoid the middle ground of 4-6 days when athletes generally feel the worst effects of acclimatizing to the higher elevation.
- Pacing by effort when racing at altitude is important as there will be a performance decline due to elevation. Rule of thumb is to expect a 3% drop in power/pace with corresponding increase in HR relative to that power pace for every 1000 ft above 3000 ft of elevation.
- Prior to racing at altitude, the athlete can use a heat protocol to boost blood volume and replicate altitude training.
Other considerations for racing at altitude:
- Swimming is the most panic-inducing environment at altitude due to shortness of breath and will feel the most different. Athletes should be prepared for this.
- Since running is weight-bearing it also typically feels harder at altitude.
- Cycling is the discipline with the most minimal visceral response and feels closer to normal.
Is altitude training a good idea for the time-starved athletes?
- If you can spend a significant amount of time (3 weeks+) to gain positive adaptations, recover properly, and manage the logistics, altitude training can be useful. Professional athletes can manage this.
- One week training camp is not long enough for a positive, lasting training response at altitude.
- Nailing the basics is the first priority for athletes. If you can’t nail the basics, time at altitude will not make a difference. To make altitude training a net positive, it needs to be keenly managed across diet, hydration, travel, sleep, and recovery.
- Consider using a heat protocol at home for similar response and much easier integration into life.