Thursday, April 20, 2006

Getting Ready To Compete At Altitude

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I am currently training for September's Mount Kinabalu Climbathon... found this article by Owen Anderson, Ph. D. very useful and informative!
climbathon03OK - your training has been going great, but there is just one little problem: You are a sea-level athlete, and your upcoming, extremely important competition will be held at altitude. What do you need to do to minimize the negative effects of altitude on your performance?

Moving your spouse and kids (or your team, if you are a coach) to the site of competition is not feasible (in most cases), nor would it be good for your overall fitness. After all, altitude training significantly reduces the quality of training, teaching runners' bodies to move along at slower - not faster - speeds.
Naturally, you could take a more-practical approach to the problem. VO2max (and thus vVO2max) are reduced at altitude (compared with sea level), and so you could carry out sea-level training which would heighten VO2max as much as possible (so that the altitude-related declines take a great VO2max and turn it into a good one, instead of changing a good VO2max into a mediocre one). This means a steady diet of training at vVO2max, as well as at speeds ranging from 10-K alacrity to your very best running pace. Moving along for long, long miles at slower-than-race velocities won't cut it when it comes to VO2max enhancement.
Pursuing practicality, you could also make a sincere effort to optimize your lactate threshold while you are at sea level, waiting for your altitude adventure. After all, one thing is guaranteed about altitude running: There will be lots of lactate floating around in your bloodstream. Maximizing your lactate threshold will be a certain way to ensure that your muscles will simultaneously "cough up" less lactate into your capillaries as you scoot along in thin air and also pull lactate back in (to supply the energy you need to run) at the highest-possible rate. This means a complementary (to the VO2max efforts) array of lactate-threshold-lifting sessions, including lactate stackers (running incredibly hard for one minute, with two-minute recoveries) and hill climbs so tough that they make you cry.
The practical approach is not finished yet: You will also want to enhance your economy. The reasoning here is that if you are more economical you will be able to run at a lower percentage of your VO2max during the altitude race. This is good, since your VO2max will head south as soon as you get off the airplane at your altitude destination. Needing a lower fraction of a reduced VO2max can allow you to run just as well as when you required a high fraction of a more-magnanimous VO2max. So, your sea-level training will have to be rife with things which improve your economy, including hill training, explosive strengthening, and running-specific strengthening, utilizing movements which mimic the mechanics of running (of course, with more resistance than your own paltry body weight can provide). For the sake of economy, you should also do some running at the exact pace you will need for the altitude competition; for a race at 6000 feet or so, this tempo will be about 5-percent slower than the pace you would achieve at sea level on a course of comparable distance and difficulty.
Of course, adding in some "super-set" training is not a bad idea, too (Are you sure you'll have time for all of this? Perhaps that sea-level race in Huckleberry Falls, Wisconsin might be better than the Utah competition, after all?). In a way, super-set workouts simulate what will happen at about 6000 feet. That is, they force you to keep going at a steady, high-quality pace, even though your legs are leaden, your breathing is little more than death-bed gasping, and your perceived exertion is making you think that Borg should have added a "21" to his venerable scale. At the risk of sounding a bit esoteric, we can mention that super-set running forces you to keep on working even though hydrogen-ion concentrations inside your muscles cells have reached alarming levels. It is a good preparation for altitude, although - like the three previous strategies (spiking VO2max, lactate threshold, and economy) - it does have a shortfall. That is, it is easier to erase the crescendo of hydrogen ions associated with hard effort when you are running along at sea level than it is to get rid of the little fellows when you are actually at altitude, where the reduced oxygen pressures tend to magnify anaerobic processes in your sinews. In other words, even though you may get quite good at freeing your muscles from horrendous hydrogens during your sea-level workouts, things are still going to be quite different when you compete on the high-altitude stage. If you don't establish a lot of mental toughness as part of your training, altitude may knock you to the canvas, even if you have completed dozens of super-set sessions at sea level.
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In addition to the general training strategies described above, there are some fairly specific steps you could take to improve your chances at altitude, including the following:
(1) Travel to altitude about one week before the actual competition. This will at least permit a ventilatory acclimatization to the altitude, although certainly not a complete blood adaptation. In other words, your breathing will feel less distressed when you compete, even though your blood won't be sporting magnified hematocrit or hemoglobin levels. In this case, training at altitude for one week should not produce significant problems for you, even though altitude generally depletes the quality of workouts. Since you will undoubtedly be in your tapering phase of training, you can emphasize short, sharp interval workouts during the seven days leading up to your race; your 400-meter speed, for example, is not going to be ravaged by the thin air prevailing above 5000 feet. The only drawbacks to this strategy are the extra costs of being at your race spot - instead of at home - for one week, the potential psychological burdens associated with being away from home and your normal routine, and the unpleasant physical sensations which sea-level denizens often experience when they sojourn at altitude for awhile (headaches, fatigue, parched lips, upset tummies, etc.).
(2) You could arrive at the competitive locale the night before - or even the morning of - the race. This would not permit the respiratory adaptations to altitude mentioned in strategy # 1, but it would also allow you to skirt the headachiness and fatigue which would almost inevitably show up if you arrived earlier. You would feel better at the start of the race (unless, of course, you were wiped out from your very recent traveling), and thus you might perform a little better. The disadvantage is that you would not be acclimatized to altitude in any way.
(3) Moving up the scale of expensiveness, you could also purchase/lease/rent a "high-altitude tent" and sleep in the darned thing for about 28 nights leading up to your altitude exertion. The advantage here is that your hematocrit and hemoglobin concentrations would rise like rockets, and thus your VO2max - even your altitude VO2max - would soar like a hawk. During altitude running, each pint of your blood normally brings less oxygen to your muscles, compared with running along at sea level. Having more hemoglobin per pint would of course combat this alarming scenario, since it would boost the amount of oxygen which could be carried along per pint. At 6000 feet, you might not feel much different than you did with less hemoglobin at sea level. The potential disadvantages here are the cost of the tent and your partner's unwillingness to "camp out" with you for a month.
(4) You could travel to the part of the German Republic which used to be called "East Germany," locate one of the laboratories which was part of the vast East-German sports-science empire, and then train on a treadmill in one of the pressure-controlled, hypoxic chambers which those ingenious Germans used as an essential part of their overall Olympic preparations. Although you will be on a treadmill and not on terra firma, the hypoxic conditions will simulate what you will face at altitude, with fewer oxygen molecules peppering the interiors of your alveoli. It will be fun exploring the labs, but the key disadvantage here is that the benefits of hypoxic training have not been unquestionably established by reputable scientific research. Working under those hypoxic conditions might actually slow you down and thus produce more tempered physiological adaptations, compared with training in normal air.
(5) Moving back down the expensiveness scale but perhaps up the bizarreness gauge, you could have your kindly neighborhood physician remove a half-liter of your blood about 12 weeks before your altitude race. Six weeks before the competition, he/she would extract another half-liter of precious red fluid. The blood would be frozen, and then both half-liters would be re-infused into your bloodstream shortly before your journey to altitude. Your VO2max would certainly be up as you trod along the pavement or grass of your altitude race, and your blood would have a boosted buffering capacity, too (runners sometimes forget that hemoglobin is itself a pretty decent buffer which can sop up hydrogen ions), but it's possible that your school, the NCAA, the IAAF, the USOC, other competitors, and your parents might frown on the practice, not to mention the "man (or lady) in the glass."
(6) Best Tip: Forget schemes 1-5, and - one hour before the starting gun goes off - ingest the right amount of that great buffer found in your own refrigerator - sodium bicarbonate. The logic here is inescapable: Running at altitude lowers the extent to which your blood is saturated with oxygen, compared with running at sea level. Part of the reason for this is that blood and muscles become more acidic during intense running at altitude, compared with sea-level jaunting; this spike in acidity causes oxygen saturation of hemoglobin (aka SaO2) to plummet, leading to a lower delivery of oxygen to your poor leg muscles. Sodium bicarbonate reverses the acidity trend, thus improving SaO2. What happens is that sodium bicarbonate "soaks up" potentially fatigue-inducing hydrogen ions produced during strenuous exertion, including many of the excessive hydrogen ions which appear because exercise is being carried out at altitude. This mopping-up action, by upgrading SaO2, allows more oxygen to be delivered to the muscles. The best-available evidence suggests that sodium-bicarbonate supplementation might increase vVO2max by about 2 percent, partially offsetting the VO2max loss associated with being at altitude.
Of course, sodium-bicarbonate ingestion is as legal as swilling a glass of Gatorade™ before your event, but you have to take in just the right amount in order to give performance a boost. In fact, you would want to ingest about 300 milligrams of sodium bicarbonate per kilogram of body weight (about .005 ounces of bicarbonate per pound of body weight), dissolved in a glass of water, exactly one hour prior to the beginning of the race. The disadvantage of this strategy, though, is that sodium-bicarbonate intakes are linked with a high frequency of gastric distress. The first time you try it, in fact, it is almost certain that you will develop nausea, flatulence, and/or diarrhea. So, unless you think that running with an aching gut is cool, use sodium bicarbonate several times in practice during the weeks leading up to your big day at altitude. Your gastrointestinal system should adapt somewhat to the stuff, but if it doesn't you may just have to change your air ticket for a day-before-the-race arrival.
In the months leading up to your altitude challenge, remember that you will want your training to emphasize intensity, rather than volume. Running 80 or more miles per week at a moderate pace with a light emphasis on high-quality training is poorer preparation for altitude than running 40 miles per week with 12 miles at high intensity, for example. Bear in mind that athletes who have optimized maximal aerobic capacity, running velocity at max aerobic capacity, lactate threshold, running economy, running-specific strength, and power will definitely be at an advantage over those who have not done so (in terms of coping with the stress of altitude running). The higher your sea-level fitness, the better will be your ability to handle an altitude challenge

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