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How Athletes Reap the Benefits of Altitude Training Without Actually Moving to the Mountains

We can’t all live in Boulder, so here are some hacks.

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Josh Wray

Join me, if you will, in 2010. No, this isn’t some Facebook 10-year challenge. It’s 22-year-old me riding a bike over Wolf Creek Pass in the Race Across America. I’m young, fit, and convinced I am invincible. I am also breathing through what feels like a straw. Someone is paying for me to ride a bike fast, and I can barely get up the hill. Nobody is paying me to walk in silly shoes, so I get to the top before handing over to the next rider, but I certainly considered a job in accounting halfway up that climb. I was born and raised in the UK, where the highest point is the summit of Ben Nevis at 4,413 feet. I haven’t been there. Wolf Creek pass tops out at 10,856 feet. As I crested the summit, it felt like all 6,443 of those extra feet were standing on my throat.

Unless you were born and raised in the mountains, you may have noticed that visiting them can be a pretty weird experience. Put aside for a second the strange proliferation of Subarus and the fact that literally everyone makes the same joke about waiting five minutes if you don’t like the weather: what I’m concerned with is the weird wheezing, surprise headaches, and difficulty sleeping even though you’re a thousand miles away from the noise and distraction of the city.

That, my friends, is altitude.

Despite the fact that altitude makes you suck at just about everything, including moving, sleeping, drinking and breathing, athletes the world over have been voluntarily subjecting themselves to it for decades. Why? I assembled a crack squad of athletic boffins to find out. My A(ltitude) team included physical therapist and ultra-runner Tim Tollefson and exercise physiologist and coach Andrew Kastor, who both live and train in the thin air endurance mecca of Mammoth, California, as well as Neal Henderson, head of sports science for Wahoo Fitness, and Chessa Adsit-Morris, USATF trail marathon champion and Ph.D. candidate. I had no doubt that together, they could demystify the connections between altitude, air and athleticism. And that if I dug a little deeper, I could learn how to score the benefits of altitude exposure without moving to Mammoth or Boulder.

Altitude Training, Explained

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Photo: Josh Wray

First, it’s important to understand what it is that makes you feel bad at altitude. Henderson explains: “What happens as you get farther from sea level is that particles in the air become less densely packed as a result of lower pressure and this partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) is reduced because of the reduced barometric pressure.” In layman’s terms, it’s not just that there is less oxygen in the air, there is less air in the air. The result in the body is that your blood oxygen levels drop. Note that this isn’t the same as your breathing being restricted. You still breathe normally at altitude — in fact you breathe more — you just get a little less oxygen in every lungful.

If you spend long enough at altitude, much above 7,000 feet according to Kastor, your body responds to this low level of blood oxygen by creating more erythropoietin, the fabled EPO that you probably read about on the same day you threw away your little yellow wristband. The increase in EPO is one of a host of adaptational changes including decreased lactate, increased concentration of capillaries and blood vessels in muscle, increased aerobic enzyme concentration and increased red blood cell mass. Together, these involuntary tweaks allow altitude-adapted athletes to produce greater aerobic power for longer periods of time versus those living and training at sea-level.

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Still, certain gear can help you adapt to altitude and use it to your advantage. Wallace says that a good pulse oximeter is key. This little device measures the blood oxygen saturation (or SpO2) by estimating the amount of oxygen bound to hemoglobin in your blood. It does this by sending a beam of light through your finger and noting how much of the light is absorbed by red blood cells. Normal ranges are 94 to 100, and below that it’s not a good idea to train. Measuring every day would allow you to see your norm, Wallace says, and how you are adapting to training at altitude. The Garmin Forerunner 945 does exactly that, logging your SpO2 all day and tracking your body changing as you take that two-week hiking trip to Colorado.

There is also plenty of evidence that repeated exposure to altitude helps, so if you are planning on climbing a 14er or racing the Leadville Trail 100 this year, even a few weekends in the high country is much better than nothing. Mammoth is a great spot for a DIY camp — it hosts thousands of athletes each year, and is well set up with running tracks, trails and a lift-assisted mountain bike park for those days when you’d rather not tax your lungs by riding up hill in order to send it down.

If you want something more structured, Leadville hosts training camps in the highest incorporated city in North America. You can start at 10,152 feet in town and it’s uphill in just about every direction. I have been there, and it is indeed, ahem, breathtaking. Leadville also happens to host the most prestigious mountain bike, burro racing, and trail running events in the US, making it an endurance mecca despite being literally the hardest place in the country to work out.

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Photo: Alex Chiu

Adsit-Morris also has some tips for would-be altitude training athletes: “I would suggest getting bloodwork done before you go to altitude to make sure your iron levels are good, especially for women. Sometimes my coach will even have us “pre-load” with iron supplements before we begin our training camp. I also found that going into training with a good core routine was really essential. The first time I went to altitude, I had a lot of diaphragm cramping which I think was due to a lack of a strong core. Finally, have fun and enjoy the process!”

If your goals involve altitude, don’t despair. The real function of endurance events is to find your limit. Even at single digit speeds grinding up Wolf Creek pass a decade ago, I found mine. If you’ve read this far, you are far more informed than I was back then and hopefully not considering abandoning your sport altogether. If you are, just wait until you get home and feel like you’re running on premium fuel again, and maybe you’ll reconsider. Three weeks after we scaled Wolf Creek pass, I won a nice, flat, sea level race in Coastal California.

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