Randy Wilbur, Ph.D. is the senior sport physiologist at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where he oversees operations in the Athlete Performance Laboratory.
Wilbur knows about the effects of altitude on cyclists not only from scientific studies but from personal experience. He has completed the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race — 100 miles on rocky jeep trails, most over 10,000 feet above sea level.
Here are some of Wilbur’s observations on altitude training:
- The old altitude training model said, “Live high, train low.” The idea was that athletes should live and sleep as high as possible so their bodies would create more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. But they should drive to lower elevations for workouts so they could generate more power and get a better training effect. Of course, there aren’t many places in the U.S. where this is practical. The new paradigm is: “Live high, do base training high, do interval training low.” The thinking is that low-intensity base training at high elevations stimulates a better training effect.
- Between 6,800 and 8,200 feet (2,000 to 2,500 meters) is the optimal altitude for living and training. The optimum training duration at altitude is about 4 weeks. When doing base training at altitude, decrease the volume about 20% compared to sea level and decrease intensity about 7%. Double your recovery time between intervals. After 4 weeks of altitude training, the resulting improvement lasts about 4 weeks after yourreturn to sea level.
- If you live at altitude and must train there all the time, consider using supplemental oxygen while doing intervals on an indoor trainer. Some elite athletes do this. It simulates sea-level training and allows increased intensity. It lets athletes live high and train “low” without leaving their high-altitude homes.
- Iron stores typically decline sharply after training at altitude because iron is used to make new red blood cells. Supplementation may be necessary.
- If you live near sea level and have an important event at altitude, you can take your choice of two strategies. First, you can arrive at the competition site at least 14 days prior to the race to allow for acclimatization. Or you can arrive one day prior to the event and compete before your body “knows” it’s at high elevation. Individuals react in different ways to these two approaches.