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Cyclists are an obsessive bunch. We delve into the minutiae of our sport like few other athletes, looking for every possible advantage. But for all the lengths we go to to squeeze every drop of performance from training schedules, equipment, nutrition and more, one of the best ways to enhance training is actually quite simple: ride at altitude.
There’s a reason professional cycling teams flock to high altitude destinations for training camps, building fitness and topping up before big races. Plus the benefits aren’t just for the climbers among us; a certain classics and sprinting specialist named Peter Sagan counts among many notable converts to altitude training.
The hardest part of altitude training might be simply finding the best training spot. While Mammoth Lakes, California, may not be on everyone’s radar as a top altitude destination, it should be at the forefront. Located in the Eastern Sierra of California near Yosemite National Park, it’s a place where cyclists can train both on the bike and off. Few other places allow you to become immersed in recreation in the same way at any time of year.
In summer, explore all the wide open roads that Mammoth Lakes has to offer while accruing the fitness benefits of riding at an altitude approaching 8,000 feet. Quiet roads for road or gravel riding with wide open vistas can be found in every direction. Come winter, some of those roads become impassable as Mammoth Lakes transforms into a world class ski and snowboard destination, but that doesn’t mean the riding has to stop.
In Bishop and Round Valley, just a 40-minute drive south, temperatures hover around 50°F in the winter, and coupled with the dry air, it doesn’t feel nearly that cold. “I’ve felt colder at the beach than I do up here,” says Dave Sheek, a Carmichael Training Systems coach who frequently trains in the area. Plus, located at around 4,000 feet of elevation, these locations still provide the benefits of riding at elevation, with plenty of excellent roads and trails to boot. Additionally, by staying in Mammoth Lakes and training in Bishop and Round Valley you get the benefits of living high and training low. Living and sleeping at altitude enables total red blood cell volume to increase, while training at or near sea level allows athletes to maintain training intensities within normal levels.
Even when snow is on the ground back in Mammoth Lakes, there are plenty of ways to accrue the benefits of high altitude training off the bike. Cross-training, mixing up your main sport with others, is practiced by some of the best athletes in the world. It has numerous benefits, including working different muscle groups and simply staving off burnout from riding too much. For cyclists and other endurance athletes, one of the best ways to cross-train in the winter is cross-country skiing. Just like the roads for cycling around here, there are plenty of beautiful trails. However, if that’s not your winter activity of choice, you can still gain those altitude benefits with snowshoeing, snowboarding, skiing and many other activities.
The science behind altitude training isn’t complex. The higher the altitude, the less dense air becomes, so for every breath you take, fewer oxygen molecules enter the bloodstream. At the end of the day, endurance sports are largely about how much oxygen your body can take in and how efficiently your body can process that oxygen. Where altitude training helps most is with the former. At elevation, your body begins to acclimatize, compensating for the decreased oxygen available by creating more red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. More oxygen equals enhanced endurance. Of course, riding at any altitude also helps train the body to more efficiently use that oxygen.
With so many ways to ride and recreate, Mammoth Lakes is an easy choice for training camps. The only question is: when will you go?