Sometimes, it just can’t be denied: that call to the mountains, the winding roads and trails waiting to be explored, and the fresh air that…feels a lot harder to breathe in.
As glorious as the views are when riding at higher elevations, the fact is that riding at altitude is tough-especially if you don’t live and train there all the time. But that doesn’t mean your body is destined for a sub-par performance. While the pros have regular access to fancy simulation labs and pricey high altitude tents, here’s what we average joes can do in the weeks leading up to time in a mile high (or higher) city.
Try to train at higher elevations
It’s the golden rule of all competitive athletes: Don’t try anything new on race day. And while that usually conjures images of nutrition and gear, it applies to altitude, too. Everyone responds to it differently-some people really struggle at elevation, even if they’re on the lower end of the scale (like Denver, which sits at 5,280 feet of elevation), while others can pop up to, say, Breckenridge (which sits at 9,600 feet) and feel mostly fine. But you won’t know which camp you fall into-or understand the details of how your body is going to react-unless you actually go to altitude, says Brent Alambaugh, M.S., physiologist for the Monfort Family Human Performance Laboratory at Colorado Mesa University.
That’s because, no matter how much you train to simulate your environment at sea level, you’re not going to elicit all of the physiological changes that happen when you’re at altitude, Alambaugh says. As you increase your elevation, your heart rate and systolic blood pressure go up while your oxygen saturation, plasma volume, and VO2 max go down. The tricky part is these all happen on a sliding scale, so you need to spend some time at the altitude you’re going to race in in order to know how your body reacts, and then determine what measures you can take to perform your best.
So, while we’re not saying you have to move to Colorado for the entirety of your training, it wouldn’t hurt to book a mountainous vacation in the midst of it.
Play with hypoxic training
If a weekend trip to higher elevation is out of the question-be it in your race destination or another location at similar altitude-you have to make the most of your sea level training. The first thing you can do: strap on a hypoxic mask.
“If you’re not accustomed to high altitude, you might be blown away by the sensation of feeling breathless,” explains Peter Hackett, M.D., director at the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, Colorado. Typically, that would be a sign for many to back off, but only because they don’t realize they just need to breathe more. “But if you get some experience with it during training, you can get used to that feeling of discomfort [and continue on].”
Remember, there’s a distinct difference between what it feels like to be breathless, and what it feels like when you’re working too hard. So if you practice differentiating between the two, by the time you ride at elevation, you’ll be able to tell whether you’re feeling breathless or if you need to back off your effort level.
Which is why Hackett suggests experimenting with a hypoxic mask, like Training Mask 3.0. Sure, it may make you look like you should be cast in the next Batman movie, but Hackett says it could also help you become familiar with the sensations you’ll feel at high altitude, including breathlessness, increased respiratory effort, and a higher rate of perceived exertion.
That said, don’t rely on these masks to improve all areas of athletic performance. While research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine shows that they can improve overall respiratory compensation threshold (the amount of time you can exercise without getting winded) and power output at respiratory compensation threshold (the level of intensity you can handle without getting winded), the evidence demonstrated that hypoxic masks do not simulate changes in hemoglobin or hematocrit levels, both of which increase when you’re at altitude.
So, rather than relying on it to replicate all of the physiological changes you’ll experience at altitude, you can use it to improve your endurance performance beyond what you’d gain from doing high-intensity interval training.
Increase your VO2 max
Speaking of high-intensity interval training, Alambaugh suggests incorporating it into your routine to crank up your exertion threshold.
“That’s going to increase your respiratory rate and your heart rate, and those are two things that will increase at altitude for a given intensity,” he says.
Just remember that cyclists don’t usually bike at their VO2 max-typically you can sustain 80 percent of your max, Hackett says. And because your max drops about 10 to 15 percent at altitude, you’ll never be able to perform at the same intensity you can bust out at sea level.
Hackett says to think of it this way: Say 250 watts is 80 percent of your VO2 max at sea level. Then you go to altitude, and all of a sudden your VO2 max drops from 250 down to 220. If you still try to ride at the same 250 watts that you did at sea level, you’re going to be working at 90 percent of your VO2 max instead of the original 80 percent, you’ll fatigue faster, and you won’t be able to sustain that effort level.
Which means there are two different things you can do. First, incorporate HIIT so that you’re working harder than you will at altitude, in turn, preparing your body for when it has to naturally work harder at elevation. Then, when you get to altitude, back off. “You’ll have to pull back on your exercise intensity or your speed in order to be able to finish the race,” Hackett says. (And you can use your heart rate monitor to keep you on point.)
[Want to fly up hills? Climb! gives you the workouts and mental strategies to conquer your nearest peak.]
Look for a CVAC system
As boutique studios dedicated solely to athletic recovery start to pop up, so does access to CVAC, or Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning, systems. Designed to replicate going up into altitude (by decreasing atmospheric pressure) and then dropping back down (by reapplying that pressure), the fluctuations in these air-tight pods helps flush metabolic waste from cells and circulate lymphatic fluid that can aid altitude adjustment, says Aaron Drogoszewski, co-founder of ReCOVER, New York City’s first recovery studio. And, research published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine found that using one can improve your VO2 max by 5 percent.
ReCOVER offers 30- and 60-minute sessions for $45 and $75 respectively, making it a potentially feasible option for those looking to add some extra oomph to their training two to five times a week. Drogoszewski notes that research says you can net improvements if you start six to eight weeks before your ride, though he adds that, anecdotally, he’s seen benefits to athletes in as little as a single week.
Work your breathing muscles
While training masks are meant to be used during workouts, there are ways to train your inspiratory-a.k.a. breathing-muscles in the interim. And it’s smart to do so: A recent review of studies published in Frontiers of Physiology linked this style of training to better endurance performance at altitude. The researchers analyzed seven studies, and found that focusing on strengthening these muscles delayed fatigue, kept blood oxygen levels higher, and increased blood flow to the muscles used while cycling.
More research published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that, after six weeks of thrice-weekly inspiratory muscle training, cyclists saw a 33-second improvement in their 20K cycling time at a simulated elevation of 7,000 feet. They established that, because of the muscle training, the athletes could maintain a higher ventilation rate-which helped deliver more oxygen to the muscles-without any changes in their rates of perceived exertion (RPE).
Now, 33 seconds isn’t easy to shave off any time trial, much less one at altitude. The testing subjects trained with the PrO2fit, a Bluetooth-connected device that makes it tough to breathe deeply. Once connected to your phone, you simply follow along as it tells you how hard to inhale, how long to hold it, and spits out real-time feedback so you can see how you’re doing (and adjust your technique to work smarter). It also analyzes your performance to note when you’ve had enough.
While the device isn’t exactly cheap (prices range from $199 to $399), it is smaller, portable, and less expensive than the altitude tents that many pros use to accomplish the same goal. (Just note: The device is currently a prototype, so it’s likely you’ll have to wait to get your hands on one.)
Pop iron supplements
It’s one of those nutrients that’s crucial for endurance athletes: iron. As a key component of hemoglobin, iron is a protein in red blood cells that moves oxygen from your lungs to your muscles. If you’re low on it-which women tend to be more often than men, Hackett says-then you risk lowering your VO2 max, essentially starving your muscles of the oxygen they desperately need to perform. Couple that with the oxygen-depleted state of altitude, and you’re in for a double whammy.
Side note: Regardless of elevation, athletes tend to be low on iron at some point or another. While it can occur in both genders, researchers estimate that anywhere from 18 to 57 percent of female athletes have some form of iron deficiency, due to it being lost through sweat, skin, urine, the GI tract, and good ole menstruation, reports the Gaudiani Clinic in Denver. Endurance athletes are particularly susceptible, as exercise can increase iron loss by as much as 70 percent.
That’s why it could be helpful to start popping an iron supplement three or more weeks prior to your high-elevation ride. Research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that, during a 22-day stint at altitude camp in Flagstaff, Arizona, runners who took 200 mg of iron nightly experienced a 6.7 percent increase in hemoglobin over the span of three weeks. (Comparatively, those who took 100mg in the morning and another 100mg at night only saw a 4.6 percent increase, though they did experience less GI distress in the first two weeks.)
What’s key here is the timing. Hackett says it takes weeks to make red blood cells to improve your athletic performance, so if you [start] taking iron while you’re at the event, or just a week or so before, it’s unlikely it’ll make much of an impact. But you always, always need to get your nutrient levels checked before starting supplementation of any kind-having too much iron in the blood can be just as serious as having too little, potentially leading to problems in the heart, liver, and pancreas that can ultimately lead to liver disease or diabetes.
Get there early.
At the end of the day, both Hackett and Alambaugh say it’s important to get to the elevation you want to ride at three to four days early-though the ideal is at least a week before, if you can somehow swing that much time away. That way, your body has time to acclimate, adjust to a new time zone and sleeping pattern (which impacts performance), and can start tipping you off to how much you need to hydrate in the new environment.
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