How To Prepare For Racing At Altitude

Written By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he's not actually out running, chances are he's busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)

15 August 2019

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Ultra X Mexico takes place in the beautiful Copper Canyons, home of the legendary Rarámuri people made famous in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. For our competitors this November, a serious challenge will be the altitude. The race starts at 2,345 meters above sea level and, whilst altitude sickness is unlikely at this level, trust us you will feel it in the lungs!

As such, we are delighted to have teamed up with The Altitude Centre for this event and are offering all of our competitors 20% off an initial consultation, as well as partnering with them for a one-off free event on 18th September in London.

If you can’t make the 18th, have a read of the below piece by the team at The Altitude Centre on how best to prepare to perform when you are well above sea level.

How to acclimatise for races at altitude

Altitude presents one of the world’s most extreme environments. The high mountains have enticed adventurists for many years and more recently athletes have begun to complete events in the elements to push their limits and reach new heights. However, the additional physiological stress that comes with these events requires a new dimension and depth of training and preparation to meet the demands and ultimately remain safe.

Expeditions to high altitude typically require extensive preparation, completing numerous lower mountains to build a base of acclimatisation as well as rotations to higher ground to ‘shock’ the body. All of this is done before reaching for the summit as a measure to reduce the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) and to increase the chance for a successful summit.

The precautions that mountaineers follow strictly are generally not adopted in race scenarios where speed is the primary focus and acclimatisation can often be forgotten. Not only do athletes risk ‘burning-out’ due to the added stresses of the hypoxic environment, but there is also a huge possibility of suffering AMS which can be at best debilitating, causing headaches, nausea and vomiting, and at worst fatal if not treated. These symptoms arise because at altitude blood oxygenation drops compared to when at sea level, and subsequently the brain receives less oxygen. Importantly, training the body to tolerate hypoxic air prior to departure can help prevent these symptoms wiping out your race.

How can you train for high altitude races?

Traditionally we hear of athletes travelling to ‘real altitude’: so called sleep high, train low. Living and sleeping at altitude stimulates the production of red blood cells, while descending into the valley for sessions ensures training intensity is maintained.

However, most athletes, elite or self-funded don’t have the resources, budget and time to spend months in high altitude training camps in Kenya, America and Spain. Thus, these athletes are forced to travel from sea level to altitude in a matter of days and can expect the altitude to impair their endurance performance and will likely experience the adverse symptoms of AMS such as headaches, dizziness and vomiting… none of which lead to a quick race.

The good news is that training the body to tolerate hypoxic air can be achieved at sea level through the use of altitude simulation and a carefully devised training programme. At The Altitude Centre in London, we have trained a whole spectrum of clients training for a magnitude of events from the world’s highest rugby match, the Everest marathon, and 10 x summiteers of Everest in 2019. Despite all requiring individualised programs the theory underlying each method is largely similar.

The Altitude Centre

Methods of altitude training

Training at ‘simulated altitude’

Exercise at a moderate altitude of 2,700m: Completing high intensity interval training (HIIT) at moderate altitude is an effective way of stimulating muscular adaptations associated with increased efficiency of oxygen utilization. The blood’s oxygen saturation will fall far more at 2,700m than during the same session at sea level.

This additional stimulus for the non-acclimatised athlete results in muscular adaptations and enhanced aerobic endurance through the ability to process oxygen more efficiently. The Altitude Centre simulates 2,700m of altitude by reducing the concentration of oxygen in the air you breathe to 15%.

Passive training at high altitude of up to 6,000m: Simulated altitude also has the capacity to initiate acclimatisation. Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure (IHE) involves 60 minute sessions, alternating 5 minute intervals breathing hypoxia (4,000m – 6,050m) and normoxia. The fluctuations in blood oxygen cause the body to adapt at a cellular level to bring about acclimatisation.

As the athlete acclimatises the simulated altitude can be gradually increased by further reducing the oxygen concentration, and the process continues. After a block of 2-3 sessions each week for 4-6 weeks as suggested by The Altitude Centre you can expect to see to a higher blood oxygen at any given altitude so you can exercise harder and present fewer symptoms of altitude sickness.

Sleeping at ‘simulated altitude’

Sleeping at simulated altitude closely reflects the conventional method of ‘real altitude’ training. The athlete sleeps in a hypoxic tent in their own home and completes their training as standard at sea level, allowing the intensity to remain high.

The benefit of sleeping at altitude can be put down to the longer duration of exposure to hypoxia increasing the production of the natural hormone erythropoietin that stimulates red blood cell production. Red blood cells carry oxygen in the blood, and by elevating red blood cell content it is possible to increase the quantity of oxygen the body is able to deliver to the muscles and the brain.

Taking the individualised approach

For every athlete preparing for a high altitude race, the overall goal of regular altitude training is ultimately to improve performance at altitude. The best approach will vary by athlete, depending on the demands of the event and the preparation and training time available, and it’s important to bear in mind there may not be a ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, by choosing the correct pre-acclimatisation strategy(s) for you, it is possible to overcome the challenge of high altitude and excel in your next race.

The Altitude Centre are the UK’s number one provider of altitude training. Since its formation in 2003, The Altitude Centre have worked with athletes at all levels of performance to maximise their performance potential. We are passionate about new technology, and an innovator in the world of simulated altitude training for both acclimatisation, performance and rehab purposes. Hear from Lead Performance Specialist James on preparing for a race at altitude on 18th September.

UTMB - Alps Mountain View

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