One of the reasons CTS headquarters are in Colorado Springs, Colorado is that there are a ton of smart sports science folks here. And those who don’t live here typically come through here for conferences or events, like the US Olympic Committee’s International Altitude Training Symposium. CTS Coach Dean Golich was one of the presenters and several CTS Coaches were able to attend the most recent edition. Since altitude training and performance at high altitudes are two important topics for many CTS Athletes, here are some of the big messages from the Symposium, as they relate to amateur and time-crunched athletes.
Message #1: Don’t miss the easy victories in your pursuit of the hard ones.
Athletes and coaches tend to focus on the biggest and most complex components of training and competition, at the risk of missing out on the benefits of easy-to-achieve goals. In other words, drink the fluid in your damned bottle! Dehydration is the single most detrimental impact of exposure to high altitude environments. No amount of altitude training or sleeping in altitude tents will matter if you get dehydrated during a high-altitude competition – or the days leading up to it. Staying hydrated is an easily achievable goal, and it is tremendously beneficial, but because it is so simple it is often overlooked.
Message #2: The best times for sea-level athletes to arrive at a high-altitude competition are either within 18 hours of competition or 7-10 days out from competition.
From a practical standpoint, arriving the afternoon or evening before a competition the following day is probably the best option for time-crunched athletes. If you have the time to get out to altitude a week before your event, that would be good too. In the latter case, the time at altitude will not give you enough time to acclimate, but it does give your body time adjust respiratory habits, reduces the stress of traveling immediately before racing, and gives you time away from normal life to focus on good habits, recovery, and thoughtful eating. The worst timeframe is arriving 2-4 days before your event, because you’re more likely to be feeling the impact of disturbed sleep, fatigue from travel, and dehydration in this timeframe.
Message #3: Schedule altitude training camps about 4-6 weeks before competition.
The purpose of a short altitude training camp (2-5 days) is to gain an understanding of how your body responds to exercise at higher altitudes. These short camps are not long enough to lead to an increase in oxygen-carrying capacity (the camp would need to be about 3 weeks long to have this impact).
Even so, these shorter camps can still have a big impact on how you perform on race day. For sea-level athletes performing well during a competition at altitude is all about learning throttle control. You have to gain an understanding of how your power output and perceived exertion change when you’re riding, running, or swimming at altitude. Many athletes realize this when they dig deep, like to surge on a climb, only to become out of breath very quickly and at a power output lower than they would have expected. Learning how to control your intensity level at altitude can dramatically improve your performance, even without any physiological adaptation to altitude. Even short training blocks at altitude can induce more fatigue than a similar training block at lower altitude, so it’s optimal to schedule these short altitude training camps approximately 4 weeks out from events so they don’t disrupt your final event preparation.
Message #3: The most practical option for improving a sea-level athlete’s performance at altitude is arriving at altitude with the best possible fitness.
Altitude training protocols like “Live High, Train Low” or “Live High, Train Everywhere” work, without a doubt. Altitude tents may be beneficial, too. But those options are often impractical for amateur and time-crunched athletes because they’re too expensive, time-consuming, or disruptive to the athlete’s daily life. If you have targeted a high-altitude event, the best thing you can do is commit to being in the best shape of your life when you toe the start line. The altitude will take your power output and pace down a notch, but it’s your choice where that starting point will be. If the altitude takes 10% off a threshold power of 300 watts you’ll perform better than if you arrive with a threshold power of 250 watts. You still have to be disciplined and knowledgeable about throttle control, and you still have to stay hydrated and well fed, but starting out with greater aerobic fitness means each hard effort will take less out of you and you’ll be stronger for longer into the race.
One final thought about racing at altitude: A well-prepared sea-level athlete can out-perform many athletes who live and train at high altitude. We see it every year at the Leadville 100 MTB and Run events, and it was evident at the USA Pro Challenge the years it was held. Preparation requires a strong training plan, and discipline and accountability on the part of the athlete, but when you put in the work it pays off, even when the air gets thin.