Podcast, Science, Training

Altitude camps and racing at altitude with Andrew Simmons | EP#210

 December 2, 2019

By  Mikael Eriksson

Altitude camps and racing at altitude with Andrew Simmons | EP#210

Altitude camps and racing at altitude with Andrew Simmons

Andrew Simmons is founder and Head Coach of Lifelong Endurance in Denver, Colorado. He joins us to discuss all things altitude, from going up to altitude for a training camp to gain physiological advantages, to dealing with having to race at altitude despite normally residing at sea level.

Discuss this episode!

  • Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!

In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • The physiology of training and racing at altitude

  • The theory and application of altitude training camps

  • Going to altitude to race

  • Considerations for athletes living at altitude year-round

  • Altitude tents and masks

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About Andrew Simmons

 03:30 -

  • I'm the head running coach of Lifelong Endurance in Denver, Colorado
  • We work with quite a few athletes on aspects of training and racing at altitude. 

What happens when exercicing at altitude?

4:22 - 

  • The first thing is perhaps a bit of fear when racing at altitude. There's a lot of mystery around it. 
  • The big thing about it is the hematological response. Your body has to adapt when going from sea level to altitude. Your body has to play a bit of catch up.
  • There's less available relative oxygen. Your body has a certain amount of red blood cells on sea level and when going to altitude your body has to make more red blood cells available. 
  • It's important to know that you can train at sea level for a race at altitude.
  • The process of adapting to altitude can be explained by the illegal case of blood doping in the nineties. 
  • Blood doping meant that athletes took a sample of their blood at altitude. When going to altitude you have to make more red blood cells to take up oxygen. When you created more and you move back down to sea level you lose them after a period of time.
  • In the case of blood doping, when going back to sea level, they would spin out the white blood cells and re-insert intravenously the rich red blood cells and it would allow them to perform better.
  • The reason it was very hard to catch is because your body goes to homeostasis pretty quickly. When testing 2 to 3 weeks after this intervention you wouldn't see it in the results. 

The theory and application of altitude training camps

10:00 -

  • If we consider how long we should stay at altitude before going to sea level the answer would be, the longer the better.
  • The length of full hematological adaptation (meaning getting the red blood cell increase such that you can perform at a nearly even level as training at sea level) can be calculated by multiplying the altitude in kilometers by 11.4 days. For example (just under) 4km would be 44 days before full adaptation. Realistically this is a very long period.
  • In general, for around 3000m of altitude we would take a month of adaptation.
  • This is for racing at altitude. 
  • For racing at sea level, anytime you spend at altitude, within 24 hours you see physiological changes.
  • You should stay at least a week to see benefits and at least at 1500m of altitude. The higher you go the more your body has to produce red blood cells. This goes with an increased carbohydrate intake and an increased hydration need.
  • More red blood cells means a thicker blood. You want to make sure your blood doesn't get thicker by keeping up with your hydration. 
  • A sweet spot of altitude would be around 2000m, or 6000 feet. For example Boulder, Colorado is at this sweet spot. It allows athletes to live and train high and live high and train low as a second principle.
  • You can go and live at 8000 feet and go to 6000 feet to train. This may only be a 2% difference but is actually a 12% change in the uptake of oxygen. So you will have more oxygen to work with when training.
  • The advantage of this is you can do better quality training when going down. 
  • When working with less effective oxygen you have to build tissue and muscles that are adapted to that. This means that moving to sea level you will be able to keep a lower relative heart rate. 
  • When doing a training camp, for example of 3 weeks, and you're moving from sea level to higher altitude you're not able to recover as well so this has an impact on your training. Sleep can also be more difficult.
  • This means the first week at altitude should be focused on adapting. 
  • The next week you can start do more intensity but you need to adapt training. For example doing a bike workout with 3 x 20' at race power at sea level would mean that at altitude you have to look at your heart rate. It would be more difficult to put out power for the same heartrate compared to sea level. The workout could also be changed to e.g. 4 x 15' or 6 x 10' to put out the same power and keeping heart rate at a similar level.
  • Your body gets a real hit when moving to altitude so the recovery between your repetitions in a workout would need to increase too.  
  • Your frequency of hard workouts should drop down too when you're adapting to altitude. This would mean that for example 3 weekly quality sessions at sea level would be more like 2 sessions at altitude. 
  • In terms of training volume, if you are doing a training camp (so no work) then you can feel free to do a greater training volume at altitude just as you would for any training camp.
  • You can hit zone 1 and zone 2 every day, but for the quality sessions make sure you have a 1 to 2 days of recovery before going into the next.

Going to altitude to train for a race

26:08 - 

  • When to place the training camp relative to a race is difficult.
  • As an athlete we want the peak training weeks to be just before tapering for a race. But nailing your peak workouts is difficult to do at altitude. So if you're on a camp and you can't hit those numbers you want to push, it can be mentally challenging.
  • 4 to 8 days after an altitude camp is usually the time when you have optimal results and adaptations, or slightly longer if it was an intense camp.

Going to altitude to race

27:50 - 

  • If you have the time to be there before your race, the more time the better. This will give you the opportunity to know what your 'red' zone is at altitude.
  • There could be a 10 to 15% drop in threshold, depending on the altitude you're at.
  • You should adapt your goals when racing at altitude.
  • The question of when you need to go to altitude can be as little as 24h beforehand. Your body doesn't have time to really catch up, so it will adapt while doing the race. You will work against your mental/perceived limits as opposed to utilizing your watch. But knowing what your limits are, you will be fine at altitude.
  • What you should do before the race is eating and drinking more. Dehydration is one of the biggest limiters at altitude. 
  • You should also adjust your calorie intake during a race. In particular taking in more carbs at altitude. Plan to get in 10 to 12% more carbs than normal.
  • You should not only plan for this, but train this too.   
  • When it comes to pacing for running, the best strategy is to use heart rate. It's the best physiological limiter. One of the first things you'll see when coming to altitude is that resting heart rate goes up.
  • If using pace, you may not be able to run your normal pace with the same heart rate.
  • Even when considering rest intervals during interval workouts, I will use a certain heart rate target to let the athlete recover properly. A walk, instead of a recovery jog, could be used.
  • As a coach you need to know the physiological limiters of your athlete. You can't give the same workout at sea level as at altitude, or the other way around. Going from altitude to sea level, by using the heart rate you'll see the difference in output.
  • For triathletes and cyclists I would also recommend using primarily heart rate over power.
  • Even when having power and pace adjustment tables, following heart rate is a much safer bet.
  • You also have to look at what kind of athlete you are. Athletes respond differently. This is why it's also very important to have a coach. Having someone to help guide you with what you should do is huge. 

Living at altitude year-round 

0:48:20 - 

  • When living year-round at altitude and going down to sea level there are some athletes who see great benefits and those who don't.
  • For me, when I race the marathon, I can't look at workouts the same way. When I'm able to hit my marathon pace continuously for 30 to 40 minutes at altitude I'm in really good shape. At sea level it would be 1 hour or even more.
  • At altitude we start to break down race pace, the hard efforts, into smaller pieces to become manageable.
  • Otherwise blood lactate gets too high and we start to push outside those zones.
  • For me, when going to sea level, I can have an advantage of about 15 seconds per mile compared to at altitude. 
  • There's also a difference between the paces at 2000m and at 3000m altitude which are more exponential, non-linear. It becomes very difficult to hit your race paces at 3000m and the recovery is very slow, even with a proper adaptation.
  • To summarize, you get an adaptation when living at altitude and can see benefits at sea level, but the extent of it depends on if you're a responder or not. You also need to adapt the workouts you do when living and training at altitude.
  • What is also important, is the event you're training for. If training for an aerobic event you can have a huge benefit. With events including significant anaerobic work, the advantage may still be there, but we'll start to see a loss in for example leg speed.
  • This means you would have to specifically train that leg speed for example with downhill strides. Gravity would help so there's less reliance on reaching peak aerobic or anaerobic output. But there is also a muscular component. You should go slow into downhill running to avoid injury. 
  • Spending a couple of weeks at sea level means you can maintain a higher cadence and pace. So going down some weeks in advance of a competition can be beneficial because it also has a mental aspect.
  • Going down some weeks in advance, for example for Kona, can also be beneficial regarding the heat and humidity which you won't have at altitude. So when there are certain needs you can't get at altitude it can be a good thing to go to sea level some weeks in advance.
  • A number of collegiate programs make altitude training a bigger part of their budget and mindset. But we need to be aware that you only keep that altitude advantage for 4 to 8 days, generally. You can carry it for up to 2 weeks, but after 8 days it diminishes.
  • Are you at a disadvantage if not training at altitude: yes and no. There certainly is a disadvantage compared to somebody who has prepared at altitude, but that advantage/disadvantage is also very short-lived.
  • Should a runner training for the Olympics train at altitude and then go down 4 to 8 days before the event, or would it be better to train in for example the heat and humidity of Tokyo? Altitude would be beneficial, but heat and humidity is the closest thing you can get to altitude. If your athlete gets both, the stress could be too much. So it would probably be better to put your athlete in Tokyo a month beforehand. Getting them in an environment with better air quality (but still with the heat and humidity) would be an extra bonus.

Altitude tents and masks

1:03:50 -

  • I don't endorse these tools.
  • Altitude masks are the closest thing what will feel to altitude mentally but there won't be a physiological adaptation. 
  • The same thing with tents because you would have to stay a lot in the tent to have the effects. It may disrupt your sleep quality.

Good options for altitude training camp locations

1:07:00 -

  • Boulder, Colorado. There are also other options near Boulder, like Alamosa.
  • Other options like Flagstaff, northern California. Anywhere you can get above 2000m.
  • Internationally: St Moritz, Font Romeu, Livigno

Rapid fire questions

1:09:20 -

  • What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports or your field of expertise?
  • What is your favorite gear or equipment?
    • Nike Pegasus trail shoes which I can also use for my regular runs.
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success?
    • Seeking out criticism from the right people whose opinions really matter.

Links, resources and contact

Links and resources mentioned

Connect with Andrew Simmons

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Hi! I'm your host Mikael,

I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.

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Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

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