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We often hear of pro athletes living and training at altitude (Boulder, anyone?) because of the benefits it can bring for performance. It is no secret that living and training at a higher altitude produces an increased amount of red blood cells (RBC), allowing the body to take in more oxygen and reap the rewards upon returning to sea level. This is why you see so many of the professionals “living high and racing low.” However, there are risks and factors you need to be aware of before “going high.”
When should I train at altitude?
If you are wanting to use altitude as a means to enhance your training during your base season, then timing is more flexible. Typically the longer you can spend at altitude, the better it will be for adaptation, but this can vary from person to person, and remember that if you’re at 10,000ft or above, your recovery and sleep can suffer. It will take some time (at least a week, maybe more for some people) to train at full capacity, including being able to complete workouts at almost the same intensity and duration as you were able to at sea level.
However, most age-group athletes only have so much time they can calculate into their life/work schedule, so a good minimum is to be able to stay at altitude for five to seven days (and keep intensity lower during this time). Being at altitude for this amount of time will allow the body to produce an increased number of red blood cells that will provoke noticeable adaptations in the body when returning to sea level.
If (when racing returns!) you are wanting to use altitude training to enhance a performance closer to a specific race, then the same timeline for training can be followed, but note that elevated red blood cells don’t vanish overnight once returning to sea level, so being able to come back down to your race destination four to seven days prior to your race is optimal.
What are the pitfalls of training at altitude?
You won’t know until you know
The biggest thing to note with altitude training is that everyone responds differently, and the kicker is that you won’t know how you respond until you get there. This is why it’s highly recommended to try altitude training during a less demanding period of your training, especially if it is your first time at altitude. Base season/off season is often the best time to experiment with this.
You shouldn’t train at the same volume or intensity as you do back home
Training at altitude comes with the notion that you are not getting as much oxygen and your body will not be able to adapt as easily/quickly within a 24-hour period. This means that your training volume needs to be decreased, as will the time at intensity during any given workout. It is recommended to use a coach during your altitude training to help you navigate how to appropriately adjust and still be able to get quality sessions in during your time “up high.”
Dehydration is real at altitude
You must increase the amount of fluids you drink at altitude. Sweat evaporates much more quickly at altitude which tricks you into thinking you might not be working that hard and can lead to danger if you’re not diligent about maintaining hydration both during your workouts as well as when you recover.