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Dispatches from 10,000+ Feet: Altitude Adjustment

How to handle the air up here (or, rather, the lack thereof)? That’s the most frequently asked question when it comes to tackling the Blueprint for Athletes Leadville Race Series events. We asked flatlanders who have raced in Leadville multiple times to share their tips and tricks for dealing with the altitude.

“Since I actually cannot be at altitude, I mentally use what I have available at 900 feet. Number one, we have heat and humidity which taxes your system, so you work hard under those conditions. Of course, hills, hills, hills, plus long, hot days in the saddle work best for me.

I try to go out west for two weeks [before the race] and gradually go higher. I’m not working, so I get a lot more quality rest between rides. I love beer, but try and keep it to a bare minimum. Last but not least, on the sustained climbs I suck in as much air as I can and make an effort to open up my shoulders and chest to give room for all that beautiful oxygen to enter, even if there isn’t that much available.”  Jeff Doerr, MI

“That is a great question and something I wonder myself all the time. There are a couple of things I try to do that seem to work for me. First, I try to make a trip to Colorado in late June or early July for two or three days to get a sense of how it feels. I know it might not help physically, but mentally it really helps to get my mind around how hard it is going to be on race day.

The bigger challenge [than altitude] is handling the four or five major climbs during the race, and the upper half of Columbine is brutal. So, the second thing I try to focus on is longer, sustained efforts. In Nebraska we have no hills, so the alternative is to find a flat section of road with no interruptions and do three or four hard, sustained efforts (8 effort, on a scale of 1 to 10) of 20 minutes or more. This helps simulate the sustained efforts you will encounter on race day. One thing Nebraska does have is plenty of wind and humidity. I very much dislike the wind, but it does provide great resistance and simulates riding uphill.”  Todd Geer, Nebraska

“I’ve completed six Leadville Trail 100s, all with chronic asthma. Altitude plays a major concern in my preparation and it’s not just the searing feeling I get in my lungs during the first few days in town. I actually come out two weeks before each race. The race itself is great and lots of fun, but the two weeks beforehand to meet new friends and old buddies in town is one of the more exciting parts for me. My advice to others is to focus on race-pace hours in the saddle starting April through mid-July, then to simply come out early and enjoy the people of Leadville, Colorado.”  Martin Morud, WI

“In July, I do a 200-mile road ride in California called the Alta Alpina that has 21,000 feet of climbing. The elevation is between 5,000 and 9,000 feet. I arrive in Leadville 16 days before the race, which is a huge factor. Since I am an asthma sufferer, the first five days is very hard while on the bike. Lots of water and downtime. I try not to push myself, and keep the intensity very low.”  Kirsten McDaniel, CA

“I have completed the race six times. This year will be number seven. I don’t prepare for the altitude. Ken told me something the very first year that I competed: “Just put your head down and #%@#$% pedal.””  Dallas Eakins, CA

“I live in Phoenix, and virtually every weekend from mid-May until heading to Leadville, I go to Flagstaff, Arizona, and train at 7,000 to 9,000-plus feet. I work up to where my final two or three long rides are eight to nine hours in the saddle. Besides breathing heavy during the race, I don’t feel any adverse effects. It just might be that all those training hours in Flagstaff actually make a difference.”  Bill Steen, AZ

“I arrive eight days before the race. I usually have a headache and rapid breathing. I go for mellow, short rides of about 30 to 40 minutes. I drink tons of water and eat really well all week. Each day I feel a little better.” – Kevin Spinelli, CA

“My most valuable preparation advice is to take as much time off work as possible and arrive in Leadville at least three days early. Drink an obscene amount of water every day in the days leading up to going to Leadville and while in Leadville, especially the day before the race.” – Ryan Rausch, AZ

“I live on an island in Huntington Beach, California. My Garmin usually says -5 to 10 feet of altitude. So I am a genuine flatlander lucky enough to finish six out of six Blueprint for Athletes Leadville Trail 100 MTB races in fewer than 12 hours.

There is a lot of literature that says you should get to altitude two to three weeks before the race. However, I have four wonderful girls, a fantastic wife and a great job. Therefore, I usually get to Leadville three to six days before the race.

Training: I ride in the local mountains and get in as much climbing as I can. I think the climbing is more important than the mileage. The most elevation you can find in Orange County is about 6,500 feet by getting to the summit of Santiago Peak. So I ride different routes to the top. I will schedule a couple of rides in Big Bear Lake, which is around 6,700 feet. In addition, I try and eat a much healthier diet prior to the race incorporating lots of beets and spinach (I think it helps). But for the most part, I live low and train low.

At altitude: Knock on wood, I have never gotten headaches, sickness, or lost my appetite. But I do get completely dehydrated and have slight problems sleeping. So the first couple of days at altitude, I drink tons of water and use humidifiers at night. I intentionally go to bed earlier to try and compensate for waking up a couple times each night. These two concerns usually recede for me after two to three days.

During the race, I think about my effort/pace and try not to over-exert. You can’t recover as quickly at altitude, so pushing too hard has consequences. In 2011, I was at the top of St. Kevins with only nine miles to the finish. I realized I could PR, so went all out. I was hammering effortlessly until I hit that slight rocky uphill road into town. I ended up severely cramping and could not pedal. I began a slow walk of shame on the flat dirt road for more than a mile before I recovered.” – Tom McAndrews, CA

“I am actually able to spend six weeks in Colorado every summer leading up to the race so I am pretty acclimated by race day. Drink tons of water, eat lots of bananas, get lots of sleep, and take it easy on the first day.” – Brent Goldstein, MD

“Nothing can prepare someone who lives lower than 2,000 feet for elevations higher than 12,000 feet. It’s just going to suck. I have tried a six-week acclimation and a three-day acclimation, with not much difference. Two things I would recommend: (1) Wherever you live, ride your bike as many miles as you are able, outside or inside. Ride, ride, ride. I live in a state that has a lot of wind and flat, so the wind is my mountains. (2) Drink a lot of water and take in calories. On race day, keep the bike moving and don’t stop for anything except flat tires or water/food. Ride it or push it, but just keep moving forward. Limit water stops to no more than two minutes. My best advice is to have fun. I do!” – Bob Sack, NE

“I live in Knoxville, Tennessee, at 800 feet above sea level. I like to arrive about 10 days before the event so that my body adjusts to the altitude, time change, and can adjust to the lack of oxygen when sleeping. It can also be good to go to Denver (lower altitude) for a couple of days before going higher. I know 10 days is a long time to invest in a one-day race, but the longer you can be at altitude the better. For two nights before the race I stay in Copper Mountain (8,000 feet).

The opposite approach is what my friend likes. He arrives in Leadville on Friday and races on Saturday and leaves for home on Sunday.

As for training, I do a lot of climbing on paved and gravel roads.” – Vick Dyer, TN

“I wish I could share with you some tried-and-true secrets I have discovered over the last eight years of participating, but I would be lying. I have tried several things that were ineffective. One would be drinking beet juice to improve blood circulation. Despite what I have read, I did not see any noticeable improvement. Another would be training at altitude. I have traveled to Colorado several times during June and July each year for training rides in preparation for Leadville, but feel the boost I might get is short-lived when returning home.

I do believe in the school of thought that if you go out early, at least two weeks in advance, your body will acclimate and your performance will improve. If you cannot spare the time for that, then the best alternative would be to show up Friday ready to race Saturday. A week is just not enough for your body to adjust.

Fortunately, I do not physically suffer from altitude as many do. I believe if you have put in the time and are at your peak fitness going into the race you will be successful and come home with a buckle.” – Jon Sandberg, MN

“Training at low altitude has meant that I can’t simulate altitude and I don’t use any sort of breathing restrictor or try to sleep in a low-oxygen tent. I do try to pay very close attention to how my body feels during hard efforts, both long and short, without getting too caught up in power or heart rate numbers. Once at altitude, I know I can’t go as fast, but I do know what my limits are and what it feels like to be close to anaerobic levels. I’ve typically shown up three to four days before the race and gone on some moderate rides to get used to the altitude. I find I need to hydrate more carefully as the humidity can be extremely low and you’re not used to that from the flatland. You won’t sweat, so a bottle an hour is necessary. Other than that, I don’t stress about it, because I’ve seen friends worry themselves into hypoxic states. I don’t do 100-mile training rides. I train hard to go above my limits and recover repeatedly, and will regularly go full speed for three- to four-hour stints.

At altitude, I’ll get a mild headache the first day or so, but keep hydrating and try not to get into a cycle of aspirin or acetaminophen – anything that gets me off my regular schedule seems to make things worse. I practice with electrolyte caps at low altitude because I get some cramping (especially above tree-line on Columbine). You also get somewhat loopy up there if (when) you have to walk the steep section and think you’re not even halfway yet. Just staying relaxed and knowing you’ve trained and can recover is critical. I’ve always treated it as four smaller races: to the base of Columbine, up and down Columbine, across and up Powerline, and the rest of the way home. Mentally keeping it in check and enjoying the experience has made the altitude just part of the epic race and not a huge hindrance.” – Jason Alread, FL

“I ride and get ready and just ride more. There’s nothing of note that I can do to get any more ready than just simple visualization and doing the work. I know from experience that I’ll be out of breath, so I just go with that in mind and I’m ready for it. Besides, there’s nothing I want to do besides simply riding in the open, fresh air. I’m not going to sleep or exercise with weird masks or other uncomfortable experiences. I just work on the legs and the happy mind and get it ready for pain.

Me and my family of racers (my dad, uncles, and cousins) show up about a week in advance, mainly for the pure pleasure of hanging out and riding in the awesome landscape of Colorado.

When it comes to race day, I know the altitude messes with my stomach, so I try to avoid using gels. I try to train using real food and other drinks that taste good and offer some nutritional benefit, energy, and sustenance. Every time I go to an aid station, I just eat whatever looks or sounds good: M&Ms, chips, turkey wraps… And there is nothing better than the broth on top of Columbine. Drink that and get down ASAP is my motto. When I get to the 90-mile-marker aid station, I eat as many pieces of salted watermelon as I have time for! There are still 10 miles to go, and therefore, there is still time to bonk. I’ve definitely made it to this point in the race and had my eyes fall back in my head, hands on knees, crying, moaning, but something about that watermelon and the thought of riding up The Boulevard will get you closer to the finish line just in your mind, which in turn gets your legs pedaling that direction.” – Beth Steen, WA

“As flatlanders, we need to concentrate on the portions of the race that we can control. One could argue that even athletes from Denver are considered flatlanders, from a Leadville perspective. No matter what degree of “flatlander” you are, the one area we can all control is our training. While getting a chance to feel the altitude of Leadville before race day is nice, it is hard to get a solid hard workout in at such a high altitude. Flatlanders should embrace the advantage of living at a low altitude where training intensity and recovery is maximized. Concentrate on an organized training plan that builds fitness based on concrete numbers. If an athlete’s fitness gets better at sea level, then the athlete will perform better at all altitudes.

On race day, it is good to understand how your body performs differently at altitude. This is where a Leadville training camp comes in handy (that and it provides solid course recon). My experience is that at sea level, I can overexert myself for a period of time and quickly recover. At altitude, the effects of overexertion can be costly, as it takes a very long time to feel “normal” again. One way I use to control my exertion level is to watch my heart rate.  I know what I feel like at a given heart rate at sea level, so it stands to reason that I will feel that same way over time at the same heart rate at altitude. The problem is that the same heart rate at altitude will be achieved by a lower power output.” Clayton Chase, WI

“I got to 9,000+ feet in elevation five days before. Hiked up Hope Pass Tuesday, and did another hike in Frisco on Thursday. Ran a few easy runs that week at elevation. No real problems with the elevation. Finished in just over 24 hours. Come with a good training base, especially with uphills, and show up to soak in the fun of the event with a “don’t quit” attitude. You’ll love it!”  Jack Bailey, MA

“I am from Iowa (800 feet). I’m not sure there is a cure-all – everyone is so different, and some people react more severely to altitude than others. In 2005, I made it to Colorado four days before the race and was in the Leadville area only two days before the race. I finished in 29:57:43. Breathing was hard. In 2012, I was in Leadville 11 days before the race and finished in 27:22:17. Breathing was still hard but a little easier. Having time before the race in Leadville does help. I’m running again this year and have been training with an altitude mask ($80, from Dick’s Sporting Goods). I’ve heard the mask doesn’t change my red blood cell composition but it is helping strengthen my diaphragm, teaching me how to remain calm when breathing is difficult, and when I train without the mask, my breathing is very relaxed. To the degree you can remain calm with your breathing when you get tired I believe it will serve you well.” – John Byre, IA

“I’m from western Kentucky, basically at sea level (300 feet). I used the Altolab breathing system to get ready for the thinner Colorado air. It helped a lot!” – Hailey Kell, KY

“Be light. Come fit!” – Aaron Georgelas


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