HealthTrainingPreparing for Altitude

FasterSkier FasterSkierNovember 15, 2007

Many elite athletes have used some form of altitude or hypoxic training to prepare for elite level competition. Likewise, many national level, elite, and recreational skiers are heading to moderate altitudes to train this fall and find early snow. Sovereign Lake race trails on Silver Star Mountain in British Columbia are at about 1600 m, West Yellowstone town is at 2030 m, and later this season some masters will compete at 1530 m in McCall, Idaho at the World Masters. I thought some information about altitude / hypoxic training would be pertinent. Important in this are strategies for “going up” to race or train.

The FIS legal limit for races is set at 1700 m, and race trails at Sovereign Lake trails are considered to be at altitude, while West Yellowstone is above FIS guidelines.

Altitude Training Strategies
There are a variety of altitude training strategies intended to temporarily boost athletic performance. The training plans that have been used over the years can primarily be divided into two categories:

  • Live High — Train High
  • Live High — Train Low

These two approaches can be implemented naturally, and also with the aid of hypoxic tents, and in some cases supplemental oxygen. Each method has specific benefits, but it’s important to note that each strategy takes time.

In the 1980’s I used the old “live high – train high” (LH-TH) approach to prepare for competition. Though this is a useful method of preparing for high altitude competitions, the efficacy of this approach to improve lower altitude performance has not been demonstrated. The 4% increase in VO2max that is typical with an effective altitude training program would not have translated into an improvement in performance at lower altitudes. In fact I may have detrained (Wilber, 2007). ‘Live and burn’, as they say!

Drs. Stray-Gunderson and Levine popularized the “live high – train low” (LH-TL) approach in the 90’s, and variations of this approach, have been used for years (Wilber, 2007). The live high part may cause an increase in naturally occurring EPO and a resultant increase in red blood cell (RBC) volume. It appears that in addition to increasing RBC volume, exposure over a period of time to a hypoxic environment may also improve exercise efficiency through improved intracellular bioenergetics and mitochondrial function and / or better muscle pH regulation and buffer capacity.

So maybe I did get some other benefits while training at altitude as a youngster! The train low part of the formula replicates sea-level intensity and oxygen flux to induce metabolic and neuromuscular adaptations to the exercise.


November racing at 5300 ft at Sovereign Lake

Your ventilatory system also makes adjustments at altitude. Your ventilation becomes faster to facilitate oxygen diffusion into the blood. Ventilation will stay elevated while at altitude (Mazzeo & Fulco, 2006). Finally, lactates at the same workload appear to be higher upon first ascent to altitude. However, over time the blood lactate / exercise relationship approaches the sea-level curve. This traditional lactate paradox at altitude seems to be up for debate these days…. but that is the stuff for another article (Wagner & Lundby, 2007).

What Can You Do?
So what are some strategies that you can adopt when going to altitude to train and / or race to mitigate the negative effects of thin air on performance?

1. Racing — Obviously acclimatization is the preferred way to go. VO2max is reduced by 1% for every 300 ft above 4500 ft in recreational athletes, and can be felt as low as 1500 feet above sea level in elite athletes. However, with acclimatization you can restore output to near sea level performance up to about 2500 m. If you don’t have time, then you must accept the performance decrements you will have. The period of acclimatization time required depends on how high you are going.

2. If time permits for long-range planning and preparation, I would suggest ventilatory acclimatization before heading to altitude (using a Spirotiger). Training your ability to ventilate effectively will help prepare for training and racing at altitude.

3. Hydrate well before, during, and after workouts. You easily get dehydrated at altitude.

4. Avoid alcohol.

5. Wash your hands frequently, and avoid crowds of hacking, spewing skiers. Your immune system may be compromised at altitude.

6. It appears that with altitude exposure there is a greater reliance on glucose as a substrate at rest and during steady-state submaximal exercise (Mazzeo & Fulco. 2006). Eat a low-fat, low-salt diet, and ingest extra carbohydrate.

7. Take your training time this fall at altitude as a time to work on technique, and develop your volume base for future intense work this season.

8. Watch intensity this fall in altitude camps. Keep basic endurance lactate ≤ 1.5 mmol. That may be hard for those of you who do too much mid-level intensity dieseling all the time, and have poorly developed peripheral adaptations to exercise.

9. If you must do intensity, drop down in altitude for the session (or use supplemental oxygen).

Have fun training this fall and good luck preparing for competitions at altitude this season.

About the author:
Margaret Waechter has an M.S. in Exercise Science, and is an ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist®. She does exercise testing for athletes at Winthrop Physical Therapy in Winthrop, WA, and coaches Nordic skiers and cyclists. In addition, she does rehab and diagnostic testing with cardiac patients at Methow Valley Family Practice. No stranger to elite XC-Skiing, Margaret was a Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team member in the 1980’s. Margaret & Mark Waechter own and operate Nordic Ultratune (www.ultratune.net).

References:

Gore, C. J., Clark, S. A. Sauders, P. U. (2007). Nonhematological mechanisms of improved sea-level performance after hypoxic exposure. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(9), 1600-1609.

Mazzeo, R. S., Fulco, C. S. Physiological systems and their responses to conditions of hypoxia. In C. M. Tipton (Ed.), ACSM’s Advanced Exercise Physiology (pp. 565-580). Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Wagner, P. D., Lundby, C. (2007). The lactate paradox: does acclimatization to high altitude affect blood lactate during exercise? Medicine & Science in Sports &
Exercise. 39(5), 749-755.

Wilber, R. L. (2007). Application of altitude/hypoxic training by elite athletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(9), 1590-1999.

Wilber, R. L., Stray-Gunderson, J., Levine, B. (2007). Effect of hypoxic dose on physiological responses and sea-level performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(9), 1590-1999.

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