Training and racing at sea-level where the air is filled with copious amounts of oxygen is no easy task, but what about trying to replicate the same performance at altitude?
Numerous marquee events and ‘bucket-list’ races like the Leadville Trail 100 MTB Race, Haute Route Rockies, The Mammoth Gran Fondo, Crusher In The Tushar, and others take place at elevations above 7,000', making preparation for these events extremely important for those Athletes that live and train near sea-level.
Although each event should be prepared-for uniquely based on your individual goals, training capacity, and skill-set, there are a few easy tips that can be utilized prior to the event to maximize your race-day performance.
We have compiled the following three Altitude Event-Preparation Tips to help Athletes of all disciplines and abilities make the most of their next jaunt in the high-mountains.
"The mountains are calling...and I must go!" -John Muir.Photo Credit: Joy McCulloch
Tip #1: Hydrate Well To Accelerate The Acclimatization Process
The reality of altitude is that the air is thin and dry, making it very easy to dehydrate leading into an event.
If you are headed to a race at altitude, regardless of where you are traveling from and when you arrive to the mountains, staying well hydrated is key.
Our recommendation is to keep a water bottle with you continuously upon arrival to the mountains, drinking from it often.
Increasing your water intake will not only keep you well hydrated and ready for a great performance, it will go a long way to staving-off the possibility of altitude sickness symptoms that could derail your performance!
Tip #2: Sleep Extra Before The Event
Another unfortunate reality for ‘flat-landers’ at altitude is that sleep quality is poor, and restless sleep before a big-event definitely diminishes an Athletes ability to perform optimally.
Why is sleep-quality at altitude poor for the non-acclimatized Athlete?
Again, the thin air is the culprit.
Our normal breathing patterns are tuned to the air we regularly breathe, thus when there is less oxygen in the air, we must take deeper breaths to satisfy our bodies needs.
This is not normal and requires our bodies to adjust, therefore it is important that every Athlete add extra sleep to their daily routine in their first days at elevation.
To maximize sleep-quality, we highly recommend an earlier bed-time as opposed to ‘sleeping-in’, but also encourage the use of white-noise, ear-plugs, an eye-mask, or even melatonin tabs to aid sleep naturally.
Climbing is already challenging, but climbing at elevations above 7,000' requires additional pacing considerations because of our bodies reduced ability to put-out power. Photo Credit: Brian McCulloch
Tip #3: Pace Yourself Accordingly
When it comes to event-day, there is one reality about altitude that every Athlete must-heed:
Thin-air means reduced power-output.
We like to tell our Athletes that when competing at altitude they should expect every effort to ‘feel harder’. Depending on how 'high' the event takes place will determine how much ‘harder’ the effort feels.
For events that are at 5,000’-8,000’ of elevation you can expect, approximately, a 10-15% reduction in power output for a non-acclimatized Athlete.
This trend of power diminishment only accelerates as the altitude increases, meaning that the non-acclimatized Athlete can loose as much as 20%, or more, of their power above 10,000’.
What is the solution?
Pace yourself accordingly and be “OK” with riding easier in the beginning of the event.
Although this can be challenging as many of the competitors around you might not heed this advice, be confident in the science and the notion that it is always better to finish strong than blow-up early.
Keep in mind that it is all to easy to go out ‘too hard’ at an altitude event and spend the rest of the day suffering at slow pace.
Note: For complete altitude performance references and citations based on elevation, read this article by Joe Friel:
Competing in altitude events can be an incredibly rewarding experience, and this is especially true with a well thought-out pacing and acclimatization plan!
What’s more, with these Altitude Performance Tips an Athlete can be confident that they are making the most out of their preparation, even without the luxury of altitude training before their event.
As you prepare, and taper, for your next altitude event remember this sage wisdom...
Freshness trumps fitness at altitude.
Essentially, rest and a robust energy reserve are the biggest asset a 'flat-lander' can have to ensure a great performance at elevation!
Until Next Time, Be Safe, Train Hard, & Have Fun!
-Brian and Joy McCulloch
Big Wheel Coaching