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Coach's Column with Travis Woodruff

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |October 11, 2011 1:29 AM

Travis Woodruff is a USAC Level I (elite) certified coach who holds a B.S. in Kinesiology with emphasis in Exercise Science. He’s coached riders to five MTB National Championship wins and has over 10 years of personal racing experience. Since 2005 he’s competed as a pro mountain biker and has coached full-time. His business, Momentum Endurance LLC, is based out of Tucson, Arizona where he hosts wintertime training camps.



Question: I live near the mountains but not in them. I am racing the Breck Epic this season, which starts at 9,000 feet and goes up from there. How can I get acclimated to that high altitude and race at my best short of dropping 10,000 clams on a hypoxia tent?

Answer: Racing at altitude presents a unique set of challenges to all riders on the starting line.  Racers who live and train at higher elevations seemingly have an advantage over others, but let’s take a closer look at how ‘altitude training’ works and how it can be used.   

It’s possible to ride harder (at a greater intensity) when at lower elevations since there is more oxygen available for the muscles to work with. Any lowlander who has raced at high elevation has undoubtedly learned that it’s much harder to do the same intensity.  At higher elevation any given intensity can be sustained for a lesser amount of time versus what you’d normally do at lower elevation.   Keep in mind that the goal of training is to overload a system before allowing it to recover and ultimately come back stronger.   Training at lower elevation allows you to ride at a higher intensity, thus you can more readily achieve the required overload. Training low will allow you to maximize your hardest efforts and you’ll get the most training response accordingly.  

Those who live at higher elevation are not able to train as hard as they otherwise could at a lower elevation, but there are some benefits that effectively counteract this (to a varying degree). When living at higher elevation the body will naturally produce more hemoglobin and thus oxygen carrying capacity is improved.  With more oxygen available the muscles are able to do more work.  Athletes who live at high elevation physiologically acclimate to their hypoxic environment after about four weeks.

Understanding the above, the best means to do ‘altitude training’ is to live high and to train low.  Exactly how high or how low will certainly impact the effectiveness of such altitude training.  Those who live between 7000-9000  feet (approx) likely will have physiologically acclimated more completely while those who train at elevations under 5000 feet will be able to train with the greatest intensity.  Altitude tents allow athletes to sleep at a simulated higher elevation, however the amount of time spent ‘at altitude’ when sleeping in a tent may not be sufficient for some to acclimate.  Some athletes might require more exposure to high altitude (hypoxia) for adaptations to occur while others might not adapt at all.  In some areas it is completely possible to ‘live high, train low’ naturally, though doing so most often requires a commute to/from lower elevation for training.

Being that you "live near the mountains, but not in them” I’ll guess that this might be between 5,000-6,000 feet.  At this elevation you’re likely striking a nice compromise between the benefits of living high and training low.  You likely have an increased hemoglobin mass as a result of living at this moderate altitude.  Also, your capacity to train at high intensity isn’t overly compromised.  You’ll certainly be more prepared for high altitude (Breck Epic) than if you were to live/train at sea level.  Also, if/when you might compete at sea level you’ll be more prepared there than if you were to live/train at high altitude.  If a person is to live and train at the same altitude, moderate altitude is likely the best all-around option once all performance factors are considered.

Your best approach for preparing for Breck Epic will be to stick to your training plan as best as possible.  Try to do your highest intensity workouts at lower elevations when you can.  Incorporating longer rides at high elevation will allow you to learn how the altitude affects you so that you can best plan your pacing strategy.  As long as you understand how hard not to go when at higher altitude, that’s all the high altitude training you’ll need. Pacing will be critical at the Breck Epic and through specific training you’ll be able to develop a reliable gauge using your perceived exertion.

When you get to the starting line at the Breck Epic take confidence in your preparations and know that you’ve trained harder than those who live higher and you’ve better acclimated than those who live lower.  Go knowing that you did all that was possible with your training and don’t sweat the small things. Know your pacing, stick to it and climb strong.

Train well and enjoy your preparations for the Breck Epic!  Please feel free to contact me if I can answer any further questions too.

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