Training FAQ: How to manage racing at altitude

Chris Case speaks with coaches, researchers, and sport scientists to answer all your training and nutrition questions.

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Dear Chris,
I am a masters athlete, I live at sea level, and plan on competing in a race this year in a location that is about 6,000 feet above sea level. That does not include the elevation on the race course. My issue is pretty obvious: I’m going from sea level to altitude, and I want to be somewhat competitive and not too adversely affected by the change. I do not have the budget to go a week or two in advance to acclimate. I have talked with several people and some suggest going up the day before, and race as soon as possible to my arrival. The only issue with that is it is several days of racing — time trial, road race, criterium — so as I get into the racing I will be on a downward performance trajectory because of the effects of altitude. I might be able to access an altitude tent. In your opinion, would that benefit me if I were to do it a month or so in advance to my travels? Otherwise, what is your opinion on the best method for assuring my best performance at altitude.
— Chip

Dear Chip,
This is a tough question to answer because every athlete responds differently to altitude. The only way to know how you’re going to respond is based on your experience with altitude in the past. I reached out to Coach Trevor Connor, someone who has an extensive history racing at altitude, to better understand how he approaches this issue. This is what he had to say:

I know some people who come to altitude and see almost no effect on their performance. Then there’s people like me. I lived at altitude for five years and never fully adjusted. If you have ridden at altitude in the past, I’d start there — look back at your records and see how you felt.

If you don’t have any experience to draw on and have to take a guess, there is some truth to the idea that arriving the day before the event is the best option. No matter what you do, your performance is going to be affected. The goal isn’t to prevent that. The goal is to minimize the impact. For most people, when they go to altitude, there is an acute response that allows your body to handle it by improved anaerobic capacity. But that only lasts for a few days. Then your body goes into a longer term adaptation that takes weeks to months. You are actually at your worst in that period of time between the acute response and long-term adaptations — in other words, about four to five days after you arrive at altitude for most of us.

You can definitely try an altitude tent to help you get some of those long-term adaptations ahead of time. I’ve seen a lot of riders use the tents very successfully. I’ve also seen a lot of riders end their seasons with them. You have to be very conservative and build up slowly. Those tents are known to cause stress, hurt sleep, and hurt recovery. If that happens to you, the negative effects can outweigh the benefits.

The key message here is that there is no one strategy. What works for one athlete kills another. The only way to find out what works for you is to experiment. Since that’s not an option for you, I’d recommend arriving the day before the race, and deal with the reduced form. I’d also approach things like altitude tents with caution.

For more training advice, check out the VeloNews Fast Talk podcast, your source for the best training advice and most compelling insight on what it takes to become a better cyclist. Listen in as VeloNews managing editor Chris Case and our resident physiologist and coach, Trevor Connor, discuss a range of topics, including sport science, training, physiology, technology, nutrition, and more.

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