How Not to Be Crushed When Competing at High Altitude

I grew up at 7000 ft. altitude in New Mexico, spent my early adult life living in Utah where I trained and played in elevations above 8000 ft. regularly, but I now live in Oregon at 3000 ft. and am learning the unique pain and challenges of racing in high altitudes when I live and train at low altitude. This summer I have three races in high altitudes: the Chile Challenge Pro XC at Angel Fire NM, National Championships at Mammoth CA, and the BreckEpic at Breckenridge CO. This schedule has given me the opportunity to be my own “guinea pig” of how to prepare for this added challenge.

Dial down the intensity when you arrive at altitude to acclimate better and enjoy the scenery!

Dial down the intensity when you arrive at altitude to acclimate better and enjoy the scenery!

For us lowlanders, a trip to the Rockies is a humbling experience. A hill I would normally warm up on has me gasping for air, two hours into a casual paced ride will have my legs burning, my après ride festivities are reduced to sleeping, and the next morning I don’t feel as fresh to pedal as I expect. Altitude! So what is going on? The atmospheric pressure is less at high altitude making less oxygen available in each breath of air you inspire. Oxygen is captured in the lungs, transported by hemoglobin in blood, and delivered to muscles so they can fire. Respiration and heart rate must increase at altitude to get the same amount of oxygen to muscles from what is needed at lower altitude. If you live or regularly train at elevation your body will physiologically adapt to transport more oxygen.

When I get to high altitude my body:

  • Reduces the plasma (liquid) in my blood, thus increasing the concentration of oxygen carrying hemoglobin being pumped through the circulatory system, but making my blood thick.
  • It takes more oomph for my heart to pump my thickened blood, so my heart rate increases.
  • To get more oxygen to my lungs, my respiration rate increases.
  • Muscles lose their ability to use fatty acids for fuel and rely primarily on glycogen.

If I can stay at high altitude for 3-4 weeks my body:

  • Will increased the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin allowing plasma levels return to normal and my blood is no longer sludge.
  • Resting respiration and heart rate decrease to my pre-high altitude zone.
  • Mitochondria (muscle cell’s power producers) increase in size and number so fueling during exercise returns to a predominance on fatty acid consumption instead of glycogen.
  • Increases erythropoietin hormone (EPO) to increase red blood cell and hemoglobin production.
Plan more carbs and more total calories at altitude.

Plan more carbs and more total calories at altitude.

In a world where I don’t have a job and have unlimited funds, I would travel to my high altitude race destinations a month before the race, but until I am rich and famous I have to be smart about how I prepare and interact with altitude. There is a lot of conflicting research about when the negative effects of altitude are the most intense for athletes but it is general agreed that immediately upon arrival at altitude your body starts to respond by increasing respiration, increasing resting heart rate, and decreasing blood plasma.
I decide to arrive at altitude under 24 hours before my race:

  • The physiological effects will have had the least time to exert their negative influence on my body: my blood is not complete sludge, I still have untapped glycogen stores, and if my sleep is poor due to my racing heart I’ve only had one meager night of sleep instead of several.
  • When I pre-ride the race course and tune-up, I do so at a less intense effort (10-20% reduction) than I normally would. However following my active routine will help me acclimate better than just relaxing.
  • It is easy to become dehydrated at higher altitude because I am shallowly breathing dry air more rapidly allowing fluid to be lost with my respiration. The dry air also evaporates my sweat so quickly I may not know I am loosing fluid this way too. I increase not just my water intake, but my electrolyte intake as well. Sadly, I eliminate diuretics from my diet – no caffeine or alcohol.
  • Appetite is suppressed by hypoxia, my body uses more energy at rest than at low altitude, and my body poorly uses fat stores as fuel at high altitude. I shift my eating routine to frequent, carbohydrate dense meals to maintain my energy levels. I also east iron rich foods (broccoli, lean red meat like elk and kidney beans) to support my hemoglobin and anti-oxidant rich foods (berries, russet potatoes and cinnamon) to repair cellular damage caused by not enough oxygen getting to my muscles.
  • Sleep! My sleep is disrupted, I am using more energy just sitting on the couch, and my body is in overtime working to adapt to oxygen depletion so I schedule naps throughout the day.
Preparations will get the whole crew to the summit.

Preparations will get the whole crew to the summit.

I may be at a disadvantage racing at altitude compared to my competitors who live or train at high elevations, but having a plan based on physiological effects to manage the impacts gives me an edge over those who do not prepare. For me, knowing what to expect from my body at altitude gives me confidence to race well. I will rely on a slightly less intense effort while focusing on consistency; I will be the tortoise not the hair during the race. If mid-race I have to put in a sprint effort I will quickly replace the glycogen used by eating a gel. After all, very few competitors live at high elevations and all of us are suffering with reduced oxygen. So, how is my strategy working for me? Stay tuned and I’ll break down what worked, what didn’t, how I changed my plan of attack at Angel Fire to Mammoth and what I’ll be doing to get ready for six days of racing above 9000 ft. at the BreckEpic in August.

Coach Emma Maarenan has been competing at the top levels of mountain bike cross country for the past several years in addition to teaching corrective exercise. She enjoys working with athletes of all levels on the mountain bike in a variety of events. 

This article was originally published on Emma Maaranen’s race blog.