Friday, August 14, 2009

Moderate Altitude Training

I spend my summers in Boulder, Colorado. Part of the reason is the heat where I live in Scottsdale, Arizona the remainder of the year. The average high temperature there from June through August is 108 degrees Fahrenheit (42C). The daily low is around 85F (29C). And to make matters worse, that is also the monsoon season so the relative humidity is often 50 to 60%. It isn’t a “dry heat” then. Training (and living!) is really difficult there in the summer.

This is our third summer in Boulder, but I lived in Ft. Collins just up the road for 30 years (1971-2001). So I am pretty familiar with the area. Of course, the downside here is the altitude. Where I am in Boulder is about 5500 feet (1670m) above sea level. There’s no doubt that when I first arrive the training is difficult due to this altitude. For any given power output my heart rate is a bit higher than it is down in Scottsdale. Within a few weeks, usually about three, things start to get back to what I experience in Arizona.

I’m often asked if I come back to a lower altitude in Scottsdale (about 1,800 feet or 550m at my home there) in better aerobic shape from having spent time at a higher altitude. While there’s no doubt that it feels easier down there after a few weeks in Colorado, I have never believed there was much of an aerobic benefit. A moderate altitude such as in Boulder never seemed to do much to stimulate an increase in red blood cells, it seemed to me. In fact, all it seemed to do was make my training just a slight bit slower. Any benefit I get from being in Boulder is more due to the great training venues and weather than it is to the altitude, I believe.

Until now I’ve really not had much to support that opinion. But today I came across a recent study which addressed this issue [below]. German researchers took seven, under-23, national team cyclists to 6,000 feet (1816m) where they lived and trained for three weeks. At the end of three weeks there was no difference in red blood cell volume, hemoglobin (the oxygen-transporting part of the red blood cells), plasma volume, or hematocrit (the proportion of blood volume occupied by red blood cells). The authors of the study proposed that a minimum of 7,000 to 8,250 feet (2,100-2,500m) is necessary for measurable changes.

At such an altitude I’m certain you would find your power and pace considerably reduced. That can’t be good for performance no matter what happens to blood markers of aerobic fitness. This is when “living high and training low” becomes almost a necessity. The only other way I know to get around this problem at high altitude is to do very short intervals with long recoveries. Something on the order of work intervals of two minutes or less followed by two minutes or more of recovery intervals will allow you keep power and pace high. The intensity of these two-minute-or-shorter work intervals needs to be above anaerobic/lactate/functional threshold. Ten to thirty minutes of total high intensity time within a workout, depending on the intensity, your fitness and your purpose, is probably about all you need two to three times a week.

Such a workout really isn’t necessary in Boulder. But I do allow for two to three weeks for adaptation. After that the altitude isn’t noticeable.

Reference: Pottgieser, T., C. Ahlgrim, S. Ruthardt, H.H. Dickhuth, Y.O. Schumacher. Hemoglobin Mass After 21 Days of Conventional Altitude Training at 1618m. J Sci Med Sport 2008 [epub ahead of print].


At August 14, 2009 8:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe I live in Arizona and am working on a base training program defined by HR zones. I would be very interested how you would adjust a HR zone based program for high temps. For example if I were using the maffetone program and had capped my running HR at 150 BPM for say a 75 degree day how would I adjust my pace or HR for a morning 95 degree day??

At August 14, 2009 9:56 PM , Anonymous Wlfdg said...

Joe, Does you diet change? With reduced oxygen are you eating more carbs? If yes, what type of GL carbs are you eating?

I live at just over 6,100ft. and have noticed that I eat more carbs than Paleo friends who live closer to sea level.

At August 15, 2009 5:09 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--Other than HR would be higher for any given pace or power I couldn't give you a more precise answer. Sorry.

At August 15, 2009 5:12 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--Good question on carbs. Not sure i can offer much here. In stage 3 of recovery I'm careful to get adequate HGL carb. Otherwise, I haven't seen any difference.

At August 15, 2009 10:17 AM , Blogger OilcanRacer said...

duh.....flawed research paper. most likely they could not spend more time than three weeks there and had to test the cyclist to write something.

at the three week mark your body is just getting used to the altitude and just starting to adapt and produce a stronger body. remember nothing happens quickly in the body.
you will not see a marked red blood cell increase for at least six weeks if not a bit longer.

add to the fact that while srtessing the body, recovery and rebuilding is slowed by the extra effort from the change.
of course the higher the altitude the more drastic the adaptation your body must go thru. but that altitude should be enough to show increase in red blood cells when the body has caught up.


At August 17, 2009 12:51 AM , Blogger Bahzob said...

Think effect will vary considerably with individual. I live at 80m in UK but go over to France/Italy to ride mountains there, many over 2000m. I dont notice any effect of altitude either at the time or later looking at power files even up to at least 2800m.

At September 24, 2009 10:35 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the research paper you quote is flawed in it's implementation. You say yourself that, anecdotally, it takes three weeks for you to feel "normal" at 5500 feet coming from 1800 feet. How then could training at altitude for those three weeks have any positive impact on performance? I live most of the year in LA and have lived / trained in Albuquerque (5500 feet) during the fall for the past two years. Like you, I notice a marked decrease in performance for about 3-4 weeks. This has been explained to me as having more to do with dehydration due to higher rates of respiration at altitude combined with dryer air. After about 4 weeks I start to feel normal but still notice my endurance is not where I "think it should be." However, after a few more weeks this works itself out, as well. I have had blood work done at UNM after 5 months and have seen a higher base-line hmcrt as well as hemoglobin than at sea level (about a 3% increase -- 42 at sea level in July and 43-44 in December despite heavier training volume, albeit lower intensity). Furthermore, blood lactate tests done at altitude show marked decrease in 1-4 mmol power even after 4-6 weeks of acclimation. A test done last year at sea level in November, after 2 months of altitude training, though (I went back to Santa Barbara for a training camp) showed that 1-4 mmol power had actually increased over the previous fall when I had not spent any time at altitude. Just an extra 2 cents.

At October 3, 2009 11:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had a related question for some time. I live in Idaho at about 5200ft and most of the nordic races I participate in are at elevations of 7000 to 8500ft. For convenience I mostly train near home but do make it a point to train at least once a week at "elevation" or somewhere that's 8000 plus. I'm just guessing though and I've always wondered whether once a week is sufficient, or how many times a week one needs to travel up to racing altitude in order to maintain optimal altitude conditioning?

At October 4, 2009 4:51 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--The benefits of altitude come from spending many consecutive hours there, as in living there. Doing a workout at altitude really offers very little in the way of adaptation. The greatest benefit is that you learn how to gauge effort at altitude.

At January 16, 2010 10:17 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I live at 7500 feet. Years ago I trained seriously for a marathon and then went and ran the Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota. I ran a PR and felt like I was floating as I ran. It felt that easy (well mostly). Needless to say, the "hills" they had felt flat. I ran faster than I ever have. I thought, and probably still do, that I owed my good performance to committed training and also going down in altitude to run the race.

By the way, I went to Minnesota about two and a half weeks before the race. I've since heard to reap the benefits of training high, then running at lower altitude, you have to go the day before the race or three weeks before. (I had no idea of that before I did this race.)

Just my two cents.


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