Altitude training

Altitude training is part and parcel of the pro triathlete’s world, as long as it’s used properly, as British Olympian
Vicky Holland explains…

When you train at altitude your heart rate is higher, your lungs burn more easily, and your arms and legs fatigue quicker

Altitude training is something that until I joined my current coach a few years ago, I can honestly say I knew nothing about. Three years on and I would by no means call myself an expert, but altitude training now plays a large part in our training year, so I thought I’d share some of its benefits, drawbacks and the considerations of this unique type of workout.

I’m writing this from one of our altitude camps in Sedona, Arizona. For good reason, this place is known to be one of the most beautiful in the US but, of course, that’s not the main reason we’ve chosen to be here. The altitude is roughly 1,400m, which, as I now know, is mid-altitude. This basically means it’s high enough to elicit a response but you can still push out hard sessions and recover well, which becomes infinitely harder once you breach about 2,000m. We’ll be in Arizona for just three weeks (in-between the Sydney and San Diego WTS races), but will then base ourselves in Davos, Switzerland (1,600m elevation).

So why altitude? Basically, at higher elevations the oxygen content in the air deceases. It’s often termed ‘thin air’, meaning your body has to work harder to get enough oxygen for every activity; for every movement even. When you train at altitude your heart rate is higher, your lungs burn more easily, and your arms and legs fatigue quicker. Basically, they can’t get enough oxygen. Sounds fun, hey?

In response to this, the body essentially produces more red blood cells to try and combat the problem of lack of oxygen. This is one of the many physiological adaptations that occur as a result of being at altitude and means that once you come down to sea level, you have more red blood cells than when you left and so can transport more oxygen to your muscles. This is particularly useful during a race as providing oxygen to the muscles enables them to continue working hard and neutralise the potential build-up of lactic acid.

There are other benefits to altitude, too. We often see a natural weight loss when we base ourselves in the mountains as the body is working harder for every movement. But there are also some things to be aware of and that should be considered when embarking on a spell of training at altitude. Firstly, do not expect to train as fast as you would at sea level, particularly for high-intensity training sessions. After all, you can’t expect the body to give you the same times when it’s partially starved of oxygen. You’ll also take longer to recover after hard sessions or big training days. I tend to sleep a lot more at altitude, although sleep quality is often affected too, meaning we need to sleep for longer for the same effect.

Taking iron supplements is recommended to help the body keep on top of the extra iron demands of increased red blood cell production. Dehydration is another major factor to consider as the air is less humid, so we breathe in less water vapour. It’s similar to being in an aeroplane where the cabin pressure is adjusted to roughly 2,000m. Plus, you almost always feel thirsty and need to use a lip-balm for constantly dry lips.

The most important thing to remember when coming to altitude is that it’s an extra load on your body, and you cannot start training normally on day one. We always take about five easier days once we get to altitude and then build in gradually to allow ourselves to adjust. Pushing too hard, doing too much, too soon is a sure-fire way to get sick or injured – both of which are a particularly bad idea at altitude as you will undoubtedly suffer more and heal more slowly.

In short, altitude is a great training tool when used properly. Personally, I’ve had some of my best results coming down to sea level after a spell at mid-altitude elevations. Timing that right can also be another minefield and not for this article, as there’s certainly an art to re-adjusting and avoiding the ‘post altitude slump’. There are many more factors to consider when training at altitude, but I hope this gives a brief insight into why I spend so much of my time living in expensive, remote, mountainous places.

And besides, if you’re having a tough time of it, the views alone can often help heal the soul.