Coach's Column with Ben Ollett - Training to Race at Altitude
Question: I live at sea level and would like to do some races at altitude, what can I do in my longer term training program to help me be able to best adapt to racing at altitude and what can I do the week of the race?
Answer: Racing at altitude is tough for anyone, but coming from sea level can make it quite a challenge. There are many articles out there about the finer details of altitude and the human bodyís response to it, so Iíll try to make this answer as practical as possible. There are a handful of basic rules I like to keep in mind with altitude racing:
1) Forget about Vo2
Performance begins to decrease around 5000 ft. Your Vo2 power will see a 2.3% decrease at 5000 ft, and will continue to decrease 2.3% for every 1000 ft upward. Thatís an 11.5% power loss at 10,000 ft! Not only do you produce less power, it is exponentially harder to recover if you go above your functional threshold power (FTP). Therefore, forget about Vo2. Try to eliminate the hard accelerations that you can normally tolerate at sea level. Think of an altitude race as a time trial, where you are simply trying to maintain the highest steady pace that you can. Most importantly, donít start too hard!
2) Designate a Governor
Pick a number, whether its power or heart rate, that you will not go above during the race. One of the most impressive performances Iíve witnessed at altitude was a few years ago at XC Mountain Bike Nationals in Granby, CO. Spencer Paxson had a real breakthrough race at 9000+ feet, coming from sea level in Seattle. His strategy: he never let his heart rate go above 165 bpm. As you can imagine, he wasnít near the front in the early laps, but he steadily worked his way up through the field and nearly finished on the podium. It takes a whole lot of discipline to know your limits and race within yourself, and he did a really amazing job of it.
Finding that governor takes a bit of practice, but I would recommend picking something in high Zone 3 to low Zone 4, depending on what altitude youíll be racing at and what type of race youíre doing.
3) Drink early and often.
From the minute you arrive at altitude, hydration needs to be a priority. Respiratory rate is higher at altitude, and therefore you will dehydrate faster. The climate is usually less humid than sea level, and itís harder to keep tabs on your sweat rate. I would never recommend against drinking coffee, but save the beer for post-race. Eat more carbohydrates too.
The Week of the RaceÖ
Ideally I would recommend arriving a full week ahead, and then taking it pretty easy all week. Itís tempting to go out and pre-ride until youíve memorized the course, but that will be counterproductive. Regardless of when you arrive, you need to be rested, even more so than at a sea level event. I would recommend starting a taper two weeks prior to the event to ensure that youíre not carrying fatigue into the race.
What if youíre employed and canít take a full week off for a bicycle race? Well, Iíve heard all kinds of recommendations from arriving 4 days ahead, to less than 24 hours ahead. Many people say that 3 days after arriving is the day you will feel the worst. Iíve never seen any of these recommendations work with any kind of consistency, so I have a hard time giving a firm recommendation other than arriving as early as possible.
The long-term training plan goes back to Rule #1. Forget about Vo2. Altitude racing will reveal who has the biggest aerobic engine. Youíll want your FTP power to be as high as possible, so spend lots of time on aerobic work in Zone 3 and Zone 4. Certainly some higher-end efforts and races are beneficial for fitness, but donít do a month of Vo2 work heading into a high altitude race. Train the system that you will use the most in the race. Also, when choosing your race schedule, consider the race distance. Many people will see more success at altitude at a longer distance, simply because it is easier to settle into a productive aerobic pace.
Ben is a cycling coach and bike fitter with Plan7 Endurance Coaching. He has coached athletes to a total of 15 US National Championships at the Pro/U23 level in mountain biking and cyclocross as well as a Bronze Medal in Mountain Biking at the London Olympics. He holds degrees in Exercise Physiology and Sport Pedagogy and is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach. Visit plan7coaching.com for more information.