Ask the Coach
Photo by Patitucciphoto.
This article originally appeared in our September 2013 issue
WHEN IN DOUBT, GO HIGHER
I’m planning to run the Tahoe Rim Trail 50-miler (TRT50). Here’s the rub: The majority of my training is at elevations between 270 and 3100 feet. The TRT50 averages 8500 feet. So, I’m planning on taking a running vacation to train at higher altitudes before the TRT starting gun. Is this a good strategy, and what are problems that can be expected for high-elevation races?
—David Leeke, Nevada City, CA
At higher altitudes there is less oxygen in the air, which means each breath delivers less oxygen to working muscles. Sports physiologist Leslie Shooter of Salt Lake City, Utah, says this can cause a number of problems, including “elevated submaximal heart rates, increased ventilation, increased perceived level of exertion, lightheadedness, dizziness, headache and fatigue,” among many others.
Of the many altitude-training theories, one proven method involves arriving at the race altitude before the event to acclimate. However, a minimum effective acclimation period is hard to assign because of genetic variation, and some people do not respond at all. And most folks living at lower elevations don’t have the luxury of taking time off prior to a race.
Your planned vacation at higher altitude may be a great way to tackle the problem of living low and racing high. It also fits with the current trend of periodization in altitude training. This simply means you take a block of time to train at altitude, then give your body a block of time at lower altitude to recover. Your body responds to the stress of being at altitude by producing more red blood cells, and research shows that 10 to 14 days after your exposure, your red blood cells will be at their highest. So, if possible, schedule your race about two weeks after your altitude vacation. When racing or training at altitude, says Shooter, “Pay extra attention to hydration and include electrolytes in fluids upon arrival.” This will help maintain plasma volume, which will ease the work required for your heart to pump enough oxygen-rich blood through the body. She also suggests keeping your muscle and liver glycogen topped off by eating more carbohydrates, since your body will be utilizing more glucose at altitude.