8/28/15

Thoughts on training at elevation - Boulder train-cation



The stats are in from our 8-day train-cation in Boulder, CO!

Swimming: 8800 yards
Cycling: ~231 miles, ~24,000 elevation gain (Marni) 
Cyling: ~310 miles, ~30,000 elevation gain (Karel)
Running: 42 miles (Marni and Karel)

Wow - that's A LOT of training at elevation!
There are many benefits of training at altitude. 
Acclimating to altitude produces more red blood cells which means more oxygen to deliver to the muscles. Altitude also creates more capillaries which gives the blood more pathways for delivery to the muscles. Lastly, there is an increase in mitochondria (powerhouse of cells) as they convert oxygen to energy.

As you can see, there are many performance benefits to training at altitude that can bring on better endurance, power and speed....and they are all natural and legal!!!

However, it's not all as "magical" as it seems. 

Exercising in "thinner" air means less oxygen per volume of air. Less oxygen molecules means the muscles have a harder time to work efficiently. The lungs also take a beating too (talk about coughing after the workouts). Although the body will compensate for the decrease in oxygen by producing more red blood cells (with the help of EPO - again, this is natural!) to deliver oxygen to the muscles, there is a great struggle that occurs when the body begins to train at altitude. 

Some athletes will notice the struggle at ~5200 feet whereas some athletes have to go to more than 8,000 feet above sea level. 


Both Karel and I had an amazing time in Boulder, CO but it was rather difficult for both of us to feel like we could train "smart" during our train-cation. The dry air was tough too.

With less than 8 weeks until the 2015 IM World Championship, our bodies were in a great place physically to absorb a mega-load of training stress but the reduced atmospheric pressure really made it challenging to stay aerobic. We have spent much of our training this year learning how to listen to our body and when we need to go EZ, we go EZ so that when we need to go hard, we have the energy to do so. Athletes often train in between this area - all the time and this makes it hard to boost performance.

In Boulder, it almost felt as if every workout was anaerobic - no matter how "easy" we were trying to go (which as you can imagine, made "recovering" after a climb or during a workout, quite impossible).
Even though we don't chase numbers when we train, it was much harder to go a certain effort in all three sports at altitude. 

Our Boulder train-cation was extremely beneficial in that it took us away from our normal training environment, which mentally, is always a great thing when training for a 140.6 mile event.
And although we both don't feel as if we lost fitness because of the altitude, it's hard to say as if we "gained" anything at altitude. 

Whereas a mega-load (train-cation/training camp) is designed to put a lot of stress on the body, the altitude was a stressor....on top of the intentional training stress. 

Thankfully, neither of us experienced "altitude sickness" so our immune system stayed in good health at altitude and with all of our training. Neither of us had headaches, nausea or extreme fatigue. 

The first thing we noticed was difficulty sleeping - this is often called "altitude insomnia". Karel and I would have difficulty falling asleep (we probably missed our sleeping partner Campy too) and we would both wake up at least 2 times during the night. We also both had to go to the bathroom to pee at least twice during the night. This got better by the 6th day at elevation and by the 7th day, we finally were able to sleep through the night. The sleepless nights were exhausting come morning time. 

We stayed in Boulder (~5400 elevation) for the first 3.5 days of our trip and then went to 8,000 feet when we linked-up with our friends in the cabin for the next 6 days. Then back to 5400 feet for our last night in Boulder. Our training ranged from 5400 elevation to 10,000+ elevation. 

Karel and I had no trouble consuming our typical sport nutrition during all our workouts (we never once trained with just water - always a sport drink + additional food for our bike rides) so we managed to meet hydration and calorie needs but we both experienced a slight drop in appetite. I don't consider this an advantage at all to not have an appetite. We need to eat!!
This mostly occurred in the 2-3 hours post workout so for Karel, he opted for more liquid calories and for me, I ate more frequently (every hour) and had small meals instead of a larger recovery meal. By dinner, we both had our "normal" appetites back and had no trouble enjoying our normal carb-rich diet.
We always had an appetite to eat before our workouts as well. 

In Greenville, SC, we live at ~1,000 feet. Most of our mountains go up to around 2,000-3500 feet. We just LOVE training in Greenville. 
As for racing at elevation, neither one of us will race at altitude simply because of the adjustment that is needed to perform well and stay healthy, at altitude, is risky. Sure, it can be done but we much prefer hilly courses that include mountains as oppose to starting a race at high elevation. 

Once again, our Boulder trip was awesome - we loved the active community, the many running trails, the delicious eats and the variety of terrain. However, the trip was exhausting. Physically, it was so challenging to train, recover and train and recover and by the last two days of the trip - I was beat. The load was intense but the altitude made it even more difficult. There were so many times when I couldn't catch my breath as I was training and I found myself "anaerobic" no matter the effort.....then again, my fitness has improved a lot this summer so I managed to train "with" Karel for most of our Boulder train-cation - and he pushes me!
 Sure, I had some great workouts but from a "smart" training perspective, our train-cation was long enough and I am happy to be back in Greenville. Karel managed to bounce back quickly after we returned home, whereas I have taken this entire week (since Tues when we traveled home) incredibly easy with light workouts, to fully recover my body. 

It's always fun to train up the training environment but always remember that your #1 goal is to train in the environment that gives you the best training stress. If you can't adapt to the training stress, then you are likely compromising your health at the expensive of trying to improve performance.