The mercury is consistently hitting triple digits here in the Valley of the Sun — which means only one things: time to race up north.
Not that far north! While I’ll always show up if donuts are involved, I am talking about races in Show Low (Deuce’s Wild Triathlon Festival), Flagstaff (Mountain Man Sprint, Oly, and Half-Iron), or Boulder, CO (Boulder 70.3).
Above 5,000 feet the maximum work a person can do decreases by 3% for every 1,000 feet. This is because your body’s ability to use oxygen decreases as elevation climbs. Some athletes who train regularly at low elevation may even experience performance decreases at less than 5,000 feet. Outside of 10-20 days of aerobic acclimatization (training at high elevation), there is not much an athlete can do to negate these losses, they’re physiological. Doing a few spin classes at a high altitude gym may tell you your sweat rate at altitude, but besides that it won’t help you acclimate (and just caps your power output as well).
Instead of dreading racing on a higher plane (literally), embrace it with these keys:
1. Turn Up the Hydration: At altitude, some athletes can sweat between 0.5 to 1.5 liters PER HOUR! In addition, the air is drier, so the lungs work harder to humidify the air at is enters an athlete’s system. If you are a heavy sweater (not talking ’bout textiles), your hydration requirements may be twice what they are at low elevation. If it is a hot race at altitude, you will probably be right around double your normal race day hydration requirement. Keep in mind that many smaller long course races do not provide a lot of aid on the bike course (Mountain Man Half Ironman, specifically), so plan accordingly.
2. Same Goes for Electrolytes: As hydration requirements go, so do electrolytes. Why? It’s fluid loss. As those electrolytes are washed out of the body in our sweat and other bodily functions, they need to be replenished. If an athlete’s electrolyte levels are not properly managed, muscle function is affected. Cramping or tired, heavy legs are a sure symptom of electrolyte imbalance. Carry salt tablets and be prepared to use them to increase your electrolyte level without adding fluids. Not sure if you need salt or not? You can pop a capsule in your mouth and break it open with your teeth. If the salt tastes gross, then you probably do not need any additional electrolyte.
3. Breathe Fast & Deep: The air “up there” is thinner. Period. Your low elevation body has spent months sucking up oxygen rich air, and now you’re literally gasping for more to get that needed O2 to your muscles. In addition to an increased respiratory rate, you’re also breathing deeper in an attempt to get your working limbs the oxygen they are used to. Most of the athletes that we coach report that the swim is the leg of the race where this has the most impact.
4. Apply sunscreen like a Florida voter, early and often: When racing high in the pines, you are actually closer to the sun. A few thousand feet elevation change might not seem like enough, but it’s enough to make the sun’s UV rays that much more intense. Coupled with a higher sweat rate, your SPF is effective for less time compared to sea level. Even if it’s cloudy on race day, make sure you apply a thick coat of ‘screen’.
5. Pace Smarter: For races shorter than half-iron, stronger athletes should try to pace similarly to how they will at lower elevation. I know this sounds crazy, but it boils down to pain tolerance. Racing at altitude is more uncomfortable, embrace it. Additionally, if you do not currently incorporate any threshold efforts into your training, now is the time to start including shorter high intensity efforts (faster than race pace) to help you prepare for what altitude may feel like at race pace.For long course races, pacing becomes more crucial. And unless you have done training at elevation, expect to race slower. Keep in mind the 3% performance loss for each 1,000 feet above 5,000 feet. Like racing at low elevation, if you expend too much energy too soon, you’ll suffer during the run. If you take a little edge off your swim and bike, the run will go much better.
6. Be prepared to feel differently during and post race: Exercising at altitude can have all sorts of odd side effects. These are essentially the same symptoms that are seen in altitude sickness. While not as bad as those included in small print or the whispered voice over that accompany many pharmaceutical drugs, you should be aware of them. Headaches, unusual tiredness, difficulty sleeping, and nausea can all affect a person post exercise at high altitude. Keep in mind that most people can safely ascend to 8,000 feet and not experience altitude sickness. And fitness has no bearing on whether or not a person will experience or be more susceptible to developing acute mountain sickness (AMS). Variables such as hydration and rate of ascent can contribute to the symptoms of AMS — so stay hydrated. Since most athletes arrive at a race site or close to it a day or two before an event, ascension rate is less of an issue.
The best part of racing up at altitude is that you have to leave the Valley! What a drag, right? Wherever you’re headed, temperatures should be cooler and you’ll see something other than cactus. The change in scenery might actually help take your mind off of the discomfort of racing.
One last thing: We’ve had many athletes who take several respites to Flagstaff to escape the Valley heat for their weekend Ironman training. There’s less traffic, and it’s cooler. If you have the ability to get out of town without much effort, you may want to consider moving your summer training base up north.
As always keep the smile side up, and the rubber side down!