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Why Altitude

Updated: Dec 24, 2019

As planning starts for next season, the discussions with my Elite athletes have started about when best to periodise their training camps. In particular Altitude training and when we can best leverage this within their training cycle. As we know Altitude training is normally associated with elite athletes looking for that extra edge, but can it benefit the age group athlete?

The simple answer is yes, to understand how it can be of benefit you will need to understand how long you need to be there, how the adaptation process works, how long it lasts for and when best to position it in your cycle of training versus you’re A race.

Let’s get into the How’s, what’s and when’s.

What’s the minimum amount of time needed to see benefits?

Personally, I’ve seen spikes in EPO (Erythropoietin, a hormone that controls red blood cell production) production after just three to four days at altitude. They weren’t big increases, but the charts did show some movement.

Therefore, you’ll need to stay at least three to four days to experience some movement in your blood profile. Understand that you won’t have stayed long enough to adjust to the altitude difference, but you’ll certainly have felt the effects.

Existing research points to seven to 10 days as being the “optimal” amount of time for a short altitude stint. So, if possible, schedule your holiday to last at least one week at altitude. While you won’t receive the maximum blood boosting benefits of a full altitude training camp, you will see changes in your blood profile.

What’s the maximum amount of time before you plateau?

EPO production spikes and then levels off after 25 to 30 days of altitude exposure. Therefore, while you’ll still experience benefits if you stay at altitude for longer than 30 days, the altitude is no longer a stimulus that increases EPO production.

To experience increased EPO production beyond 30 days, you need to again change the stimulus, either by going to a higher altitude or returning to sea level for a short duration. This is why Elite athletes periodise their approach to altitude training, combining a month on with a week down then 2 weeks back.

Preparing for Altitude Training

To maximise your time at altitude, it’s critical that your body be as prepared as possible for the metabolic demands and physiological changes that will occur. To do this you will need to follow these simple rules.

Take an iron supplement

Red blood cell mass and oxygen demands increase at a higher altitude. As such, you need to supplement your diet with iron before you arrive at altitude.

Supplementing with iron before will not only help prevent altitude sickness, but it will maximise the metabolic benefits such as increased red blood cell counts and EPO production. The guidelines for Olympic athletes training at altitude is to supplement with 120 to 130 mg of elemental iron per day, divided into 2 doses, taken with vitamin C. You should consult with your doctor to get an iron test if you’re thinking about iron supplementation.

Take an antioxidant

While most athletes understand training at altitude will be made more difficult because of the thin air, many don’t realise that recovery from hard running at altitude is slowed because of an increased production of free radicals in the muscles.

These free radicals contribute to fatigue and hamper recovery. To combat the effects of these free radicals, begin taking an antioxidant such as a multivitamin or Vitamin E before you head to the mountains and ward off as much free radical damage as you can.

Supplement with branch chain amino acids

Basal metabolic rate (BMR) increases at altitude, especially in the first couple of days, which means you’re actually burning more calories for the same amount of exercise. Meanwhile, appetite is suppressed by hypoxia, causing you to eat less because you’re not hungry.

While this may sound great for those athletes trying to lose weight, it’s detrimental to performance, especially when your body is already stressed. To minimise reduction in body mass and loss of muscle, make sure you’re eating enough and try supplementing with branched-chain amino acids such as leucine, isoleucine and valine. These amino acids help to build muscle mass and prevent further deterioration of lean muscle mass at high altitudes.

Training Tips

Don’t be afraid to go slow

When above 5,000 feet, you should (and may be forced to) slow your pace. Don’t try to fight it or force your normal pace. You may not feel the difference when you first start your session or when on a flat road, but it will catch up with you and make for an unpleasant second half of the session and defeat the purpose of going easy and helping with the adaptation process.

You’ll often find that when training at altitude even the smallest hill will send you gasping for breath. Don’t be concerned, this is a common experience. Take any hills very slow and don’t be afraid to walk at the top to catch your breath so your breathing and heart rate can return to normal.

Change your training

Take more rest between intervals

When training at altitude, try and increase exercise-recovery ratios as much as possible. Recent research indicates that a 1:2 recovery ratio is optimal. For example, if you run hard for 3 minutes, take 6 minutes recovery. At sea level, you can usually get away with a 1:1 ratio, or even a 2:1 ratio.

Slow your tempo efforts down

Similar to going easy, going at threshold pace at altitude is extremely difficult and you will have to slow your pace considerably.

Unfortunately, coaches and exercises scientists don’t have an exact ratio for how much your run will need to slow down to be effective.

Each athlete responds to altitude differently and your exact elevation will impact your pace. Use your breathing or a heart-rate monitor to measure effort level and don’t be concerned about specific times.

Get more sleep

Recovering and sleeping at altitude are made more difficult by free radical damage and the thin air. Sleep specialists have found athletes who train at altitude imperceptibly wake almost five times as often as they do at sea level during the first three weeks. This prevents the body from getting into a deep sleep, which hampers recovery. So it’s a perfect excuse to give yourself more sleep or a lay-in.

Drink extra fluids

Fluid intake is critical when training at altitude. The thin air makes your breathing shallower and more frequent, which creates greater fluid loss through the respiratory system. Carry water with you at all times and aim to drink about twice as much as you normally do at sea level.

While you may not be an Elite athlete who intends to use altitude training as part of a strict performance enhancing protocol, you can make good use of your time at altitude planned or not by following those simple steps.

Have fun and let me know how you get on with you training

Sisu Racing Triathlon Endurance Coach

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