Not everyone has the benefit of growing up at high altitudes – especially when you decide to do an event in this low oxygen environment. Coming from a low altitude, you might be a strong rider, however, due to the stresses altitude has on the body, your performance could suffer greatly if you don’t plan your training properly to include altitude acclimation.
Here are some training tips for cyclists and triathletes to help you understand what altitude does to the body and how to be better acclimated for your next high altitude event, especially when you are living at a low altitude!
What does altitude do to your body?
There is a decreased concentration of O2 in air as we go up in altitude. Without acclimation, this can cause a decrease in your VO2 max (2% for every 1000 ft gained), and decrease in Functional threshold power (FTP) (approx 1% per 1000 ft of gain). Because there is less oxygen in the air, that means there is less O2 for your blood to carry to your muscles as you gain altitude.
What are the benefits to altitude training?
There are many benefits to altitude training including:
- improving the delivery of oxygen to the muscles
- the body producing a natural hormone know as (EPO)
- increasing red blood cells (more oxygen to the muscles)
- increasing in the number of small blood vessels
- increasing buffering capacity (ability to manage the build up of waste acid)
- changing the microscopic structure and function of the muscles themselves
Along with benefits of altitude on the body, there are some risks:
For the more extreme altitudes (we’re mostly talking about mountain climbers here), weight loss can come from loss in muscle mass (above 5000m). Altitude can also cause the blood to thicken from too many blood cells, which then slows the oxygen delivery. Not only do you have less oxygen, but the delivery of that to the body and muscles is slower. Other risks of high altitude include a weakened immune system, a reduced ability to train at high intensity, loss of appetite, muscles not being able to repair as fast and altitude sickness.
How do we improve how we acclimate to the altitude when living at low altitude?
Start by improving your VO2 Max
VO2 Max is the maximal O2 that can be inhaled and absorbed by the body. This is lost (2% per 1000 ft gain in altitude) so by getting in the best aerobic fitness, you will be better off when at altitude.
Interval training is the best way to train your lungs to be the most efficient and to improve your VO2 max.
An example workout is:
Warm up for 15-2o minutes, then on a hill, do 5 intervals 3-5 minutes in duration at 110-120% of your FTP (functional threshold power) aka – as hard as you can. Recover down the hill for 3-5 minutes before starting the next effort.
This type of workout is increasing your lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen.
Training in the Heat:
Training in the heat allows the body to produce more plasma, creating greater cardiac output and a higher VO2 Max.
One study showing the effects of heat training was done by Santiago Lorenzo at the University of Oregon. This was a 10 day study. In 2010 Lorenzo recruited 20 highly trained cyclists and had them complete a performance test in temperate conditions on two occasions separated by 10 days. Between the tests, all 20 cyclists completed a prescribed training program, but 12 of them did it in a controlled, hot environment (100 degrees) while the other eight performed their workouts in temperate conditions (55 degrees) matching those of the performance tests.
The results concluded that the 12 cyclists who underwent heat acclimatization improved their performance in the cool performance test by 6 percent. In addition, their VO2max and their power output at lactate threshold increased by 5 percent. There were no improvements among those who trained in a cool environment.
Using other modalities to improve altitude acclimation:
There are many other means to improving your altitude acclimation without driving up to high altitudes and depending on where you live or your budget, you may have more options available. Some cities have performance centers with some of these modalities included in their services. Others options you can buy for your home. Just be sure to do plenty of research on what method works for you and where you’ll get the most bang for your buck in terms of the physiological adaptations that will occur.
- Intermittent Hypoxic Therapy (IHT): There is a lot of peer reviewed research on this method of training. IHT is delivered in short bursts of reduced oxygen (hypoxic) air breathing via a mask, alternated with ambient air breathing. In a nut shell, IHT is a non-invasive, drug-free technique aimed at improving human performance and well-being by way of adaptation to reduced oxygen.
- Altitude tents
- Altitude Training Room
- Dynamic Hypobaric Conditioning Therapy: uses a revolutionary cyclical hypobaric or low-pressure “egg shape” POD that delivers dynamic pressure changes to condition the human body at the cellular level, hence adding a new and incremental cellular level training dimension to any committed athlete conditioning and fitness regimen. This is a new technology on the market so there isn’t a lot of research out there just yet.
Again, there are many modalities out there so be sure to do your research on what would work best for you. Some devices require months of use to get the full adaptations to take place so when planning for a big altitude event – be sure to give yourself time.
About Melissa Ross:
Melissa Ross is Co-Founder and Cycling Coach of Potential Energy Training and Nutrition. Melissa’s 12+years in the sport as an athlete and 6+ years as a coach has taken her all over the world from touring Italy, racing across Europe and the US as a professional road cyclist, to becoming a pro mountain biker, exploring the trails across Arizona and even recently finishing 13th in the 2015 Absa Cape Epic in South Africa and making the podium 2 years in a row in the Leadville Trail 100! Currently Melissa is expecting her first child in September so can be found taking casual rides and hiking with her 2 border collies. Melissa has an incredible desire to help other people reach their full potential and bring the passion of having a healthy lifestyle into their lives.