Physiological adaptations to altitude: train smart

I remember my very first destination bike ride - beautiful Lake Tahoe in September of 2006. This was a very exciting opportunity for me to ride my bike somewhere new and to experience how much I love having gears. I had my tri bike less than a year but I instantly fell in love with climbing. Oh, this trip was also extra special because my "boyfriend" Karel (who I had been dating for less than 5 months) joined me for our first trip together. 

I guess if any guy would voluntarily ride his bike around Lake Tahoe with me for "fun", he would be a keeper. Lucky me!

As much as I love traveling to race and racing to travel, it's important that when I pick my races, I understand the variables that can have a positive and negative impact in my racing experience. I put a lot of time, effort and money into my race day planning and training so it is important to me that I am able to do my best on race day by controlling my variables. Because my best distance is the Ironman, I realize that spending so much time and effort to prepare my body physically for 140.6 miles is hard enough. Add in conditions that I can not properly physically prepare for and that becomes an entire different scenario. 

Although some athletes may be fine to race in an environment that has elements that are new to the body on race day, it is important prior to selecting races (or if you have them picked, to adjust race day plan properly) to address any limiters that could or may affect your race day experience. Although I live in Florida, my body loves to climb. I do not train on any hills but I know how to simulate race day conditions with my power meter to help me pace in different intervals which could resemble race day. As for racing in the mountains......not likely as I live at sea level in Florida. 

As for altitude, perhaps there may be a day when I will do a race out West in the mountains but for now, I love to race and I know my body will become compromised the higher and higher I go above sea level (especially compared to the athletes who I am competing against - who can live and train at higher altitudes than myself). This is why it is really important for athletes to properly pick races that suitable for successful race day experiences (weather considered as well). There's nothing wrong with a bucket list race but be sure to consider the physical, financial, time and mental investment you are making for your "destination" race and if are able to put all that hard work to the test on race day. 

In the Fall 2013 (vol 32, No 4) issue of SCAN there was a great article discussing endurance athletes who train at altitude. We have all heard "train low, live high" to maximize performance but there are a few things to pay attention to with altitude training. Whether you are choosing to train at altitude specifically for physiological purposes or traveling for vacation and hope to maintain your fitness/training routine, here are a few tips from the newsletter (pg 18): 

-Iron - make sure iron stores are adequate by being testing for serum ferritin before going to altitude. Ferritin concentrations below 20 ng/mL to 30 ng/mL suggest a suboptimal iron status that might not support blood based adaptations to moderate altitude. In some countries, such as Australia, endurance athletes with low serum ferritin are encouraged to take an iron supplement daily for 2-4 weeks before going to altitude. 

-Illness - start the trip when you are healthy; avoid the trip if you are sick. An athlete who feels unwell does not need any additional stress relating to the dry air and hypoxia associated with high altitudes. Instead, the athletes should rest and recover at sea level. 

-Inflammation - Research examining the efficacy of EPO (erythropoietin), a hormone that controls new red blood cell formation, in sick people demonstrates that inflammation reduces the red blood cell response to EPO. Because EPO is a cytokin (a signaling compound involved in the immune response), it is possible that other cytokines involved in inflammation also interfere with red blood cell production. That could mean reduced ability to transport oxygen from the blood into the working muscles - and that means early fatigue.
-Intensity - Athletes should avoid doing high-intensity exercise at altitude for a while. Although they may be excited to start altitude training, many athletes overdo it during the first 3-7 days. They then struggle to do high-quality workouts during the middle of the camp-or even worse, they become sick. Allowing the body a few days to get familiarized with altitude is a wise plan.  

-Intake of Energy - Eat enough: no dieting is allowed at altitude because the body needs energy to make red blood cells. although it may be easier to lose weight at altitude (due to a lack of appetite), the better time to lose weight is during the off-season. 

-Investment and interest - Altitude training camps can be extremely motivating and exciting. Athletes want to use this unique environment to build hope and optimism for upcoming competitions. 

Since I won't be racing swim, bike, run in the mountains anytime soon, I think I will stick with the snow sports when I have the opportunity to enjoy a snowy, amazing mountain view.
(picture from Oakley Women product testing trip in Utah)