Los Angeles Triathlon Club
Altitude and the Triathlete
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Date Created: 04/19/02

Written By: Ian Murray

Ive been receiving an abnormally high amount of questions about training and racing at altitude lately. It may be due to the fact that the debut of Ironman Utah is drawing near or perhaps that more sea level athletes are thinking a competitive edge might be found at a higher elevation. There is some science behind altitude training but some facts may surprise you. When I was a student at Colorado University in Boulder I lucked into a debate on the pros and cons to altitude training for the endurance athlete. It was hosted by CUs resident altitude expert Dr. Gamoff, inventor a device called the Gamoff Bag. Its a chamber, about seven feet long and thirty six inches wide that can be used to manipulate the atmosphere around one person. The debate only had maybe 30 people in the audience but many were world class athletes. Magda King, the first woman to ever ascend all 8,000 meter peaks was in the audience and she spoke of using the Gamoff bag to help speed her preparation for her Everest summit. There were also two Kenyons in the audience both of whom had held the world record in 10K at one point and time, and their reason for living in Boulder was based entirely on the elevation of the city. The upshot of the debate is now pretty common knowledge: time at elevation will force your body to develop a greater number of red blood cells and therefore make your body better at delivering oxygen to muscle tissues that need it on race day. But wait! Theres a down side. Training at elevation is less beneficial than training at sea level (or even below sea level). The reasons are simple; recovery time is longer at elevation, therefore less training volume can be met, and your body doesnt react as fast as it might during the actual workouts. If you want to race a 40K time trial on your bike at sea level and you want to average 29 mph, then your training needs to include intervals that are at and above that speed. If youve committed to training at 9,000 feet you may not be able to push your bike to that speed at that elevation so you will never really train the leg speed or power needed for race day. The conclusion of the debate was that the ultimate situation would be to sleep at altitude (approximately 8,000 feet above sea level) and train at sea level. This sleep high, train low theory has been and is currently used by many athletes. The elites who train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs (elev 6,184) often sneak up near Woodland Park to sleep at 8,500 feet. Those elites will take the theory even further by periodically running speed sessions on a treadmill while attached to a respirator that simulates the air quality at sea level. That kind of device or commitment to travel isnt always available to people who have jobs or family has them keeping them to one specific elevation for daily life. Scott Tinley always used Steamboat Springs, Colorado as his altitude getaway and I see that recently retired Mike Pigg is selling his chamber for a mere $8,500 (retail $12,800). So the question remains: how does a mortal such as us, one who refuses to cheat with epo or any form of blood doping, one who cannot afford a hyperbaric chamber, one who cant be driving up to elevation every night for sleep " what can we do to help ourselves? Here are some suggestions: A) There are two schools of thought about living at sea level and having to go up to race at elevation: 1) go up 10-14 days before and acclimate or 2) go up the night before the race and pretend its no different. These both work pretty well but its the middle ground that will kill your energy. Spending 3-7 days at elevation seems to exhaust the body as its working overtime to adjust, leaving you feeling beat. At the same time 3-7 days isnt enough time to make the biological changes needed for improved performance on race day. B) Hydration becomes even more critical when trying to acclimate " drink water. C) Theres been talk about hypoxic training where you sort of breath less or hold your breath during efforts in order to dupe your body into believing that its at altitude. Ive never read a study that got me past how absurd this sounds. D) If you are going to go up early try what many national cycling teams do: two days high, two days low, two days high. This seesaw effect is rumored to produce good changes without as much fatigue E) Eat a bit more carbs a bit less protein and bit less fat. Youre body is at work trying to make big changes inside so give it the energy it needs to succeed. Ive saved the best news for last. There are a ton of LA Tri Club members headed to IMUT after months of training and years of living here at sea level. The elevation at Provo is only 4, 500 feet above sea level. In biological terms thats not that high. Altitude affects each individual differently but for most it takes the thin air over 6,000 feet to really start to negatively affect your average joe. So for Provo go up when you like, get to know the course, sleep well and treat yourself like a god for the days prior to the race. Youll be fine.

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