High Altitude Training for Mountain Biking
High Altitude Training for Mountain Biking Athletes are constantly looking for new ways to improve performance whether it is from a new training method, a nutritional strategy, or the latest equipment. One method that has been used with success for decades is altitude training. However, there are many misconceptions about altitude training and few people actually know how to correctly implement this type of training.
So what are the physiological effects of altitude training? When exposed to high altitude, less oxygen can be absorbed into the bloodstream, not because there is less oxygen, but because there is a lower barometric pressure driving the oxygen into the circulation. Less oxygen in the bloodstream means less oxygen for your working muscles. This results in a lowered aerobic capacity and ultimately a slower ride. In order to offset the lower oxygen levels in the bloodstream, the body produces more blood cells in an effort to maintain adequate oxygen transfer levels to the tissues.
Because of this well-known adaptation, researchers first theorized that training at altitude would improve exercise performance at sea level because the body would be able to transport greater amounts of oxygen. However, the problem with this concept is that, although red blood cell concentration does increase with chronic altitude exposure, athletes cannot train at the same intensity at elevation as they can at low altitude. Exercise performance is not affected at altitudes below 4500 feet. However, for every 1000 feet about 4500 feet, performance declines by 3%. Practically speaking, if you can cycle 30 miles in two and one half hours at 4500 feet, it would take you about 2 hours 50 minutes to cycle this same distance at 8000 feet altitude. Therefore, there is little benefit of traditional altitude training since the negative impact on training intensity counteracts the benefits of more red blood cells.
Further research into altitude training has shown that it can be helpful if executed in a particular way commonly referred to as "live high, train low." The advantage of this training method is that living high chronically stimulates red blood production and training low allows maximum intensity workouts to be performed. It's the best of both worlds. For a mountain biker who is looking to use this technique, living at an elevation of 7,000 to 9,000 feet is ideal since it is sufficiently high to stimulate red blood production, but not so high that acute mountain sickness is a great threat. This means living in the western United States since the only states with cities above 7000 feet are Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah, Wyoming, and Nevada. For example, hundreds of world class athletes "live high and train low" in Flagstaff, AZ each year because the elevation is 7,000 feet and it takes only a 30-minute drive to get on trails below 4,500 feet in elevation.
Unfortunately, some people do not respond favorably to the "live high, train low" approach. Performance is enhanced in about half of those who use this method, but the other half of people will see no improvement in their sea level performance. To make matters worse, you can't predict who will respond well and who won't. One thing is for sure, with this method, altitude training will improve your mountain biking performance at altitude.
There are several things that you can do to improve the acclimatization process and increase your chances that altitude training will work for you. First, eat plenty of iron. Iron deficiency, a problem common in endurance athletes, interferes with red blood cell production. Second, hydrate well. Exposure to altitude dehydrates the body and results in performance declines and muscle tissue is burned for energy. Third, eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables which also offer an abundance of natural vitamins. You can supplement your diet with phytonutrient supplements such as concentrated aloe vera juice. Try to avoid vitamin supplements given the body functions best on natural whole foods.
Altitude exposure lowers antioxidant concentrations in the circulation. These antioxidants must be replenished in the diet since they are important in strengthening the immune system to ward off infection and they hasten recovery time between exercise sessions; and antioxidants simply come from green foods.
In summary, altitude training definitely improves your mountain biking performance at altitude. For performance below 4500 feet in elevation, traditional altitude training has little effect. However, the "live high, train low" works well for some people. Adequate hydration and a nutritious diet will enhance the training effect.