Monday, February 1, 2016

Gordo’s Guide to Altitude Training and Racing

by Gordo Byrn

With our Boulder Camp coming up, I thought that I’d share the most common questions I receive about altitude.

Should I worry about altitude?
For races under 7,500 feet, I wouldn’t be concerned at all. Come in as late as possible, race and enjoy yourself. The Boulder 70.3 is a great example. Athletes fly in from all over the world and put up fast times. The bulk of a triathlon is cycling at high speed. At a race venue like Boulder (5,500 feet), moderate altitude makes most athletes faster, overall.

Should I do an altitude training camp?
Go to the best training location. The benefits from training are what create performance.

What’s the best way to prepare for altitude?
If the race venue is under 6,000 feet then go live there. If over 6,000 feet then base yourself under 6,000 feet and make frequent trips to the altitude where you need to perform.

I can’t relocate. What else have you got?
Altitude, like heat, is another form of stress. The more fit you are, the better you will perform at altitude.

So your advice is to get fit. I was planning that for all my races. Is there anything special about altitude?
Altitude punishes poor pacing. The No. 1 error that I see athletes making at altitude is tapping their anaerobic capacity. Start each leg of the race “too slow” and build speed gradually. Never spike effort.

What do you think about artificial altitude, specifically low-oxygen rooms/tents and intermittent-hypoxic training?
I have experience with all these methods and even converted my bedroom in Christchurch into a low-oxygen room.

At the time, I was motivated to set up the low-oxygen room based on the US Postal Cycling team using the technology. With the passage of time, we found out that the team was using EPO to boost their numbers. Remember that altitude can be a smokescreen for other means of performance enhancement. That said, I believe that low-oxygen environments can be useful.

Where the low-oxygen environments are most useful is preparing your brain to fall asleep at altitude. Low-oxygen exposure is appropriate for athletes that need to perform when they arrive at altitude. Absent quality sleep, you’re limited to six to 10 days worth of training before you’ll need to get back to sea level and unload.

If you want to experiment with low-oxygen technology then consult with a specialist who can advise you on managing your oxygen saturation. Within my team it has always appeared that the mechanism of oxygen desaturation (ideally while exercising) is what triggers the most beneficial adaptations.

Who benefits the most from living at altitude?
Large “diesel” athletes seem to benefit the most as well as athletes that trend towards stronger, rather than faster.

Any further reading?
Yes, lots!
Alan Couzens on Racing Ironman at Altitude
My series on altitude: Part One and Part Two
Alan Couzens on Athlete Response Types
Justin Daerr on Training in Boulder
Mike Coughlin on living at 8,000 feet for a month, while training for Ultraman

If you're racing IM Boulder this summer, take advantage of our IM Boulder Training Camp running June 20-22. You'll have access to on-course training and race-specific knowledge from our local experts.


Gordo is the founder of Endurance Corner. You can find his personal blog at coachgordo.wordpress.com.

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