Whether you are conquering the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, chasing a lifelong dream of riding the Alpe d’Huez, or just visiting a family member in Colorado, chances are, if you are an avid cyclist, you will eventually find yourself riding at high elevation and struggling to breathe. Exercising at altitude can be uncomfortable both physically and mentally. While many elite athletes choose to live at altitude because of the potential benefits, it is possible to be only an altitude visitor and still perform at a high level if you implement the right strategies.
What Happens at Altitude?
While every individual is different, any altitude above 4,920 feet is considered significant enough to have a physiological impact over time and/or impact performance in the short term. In the long term, extended altitude exposure can increase the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity and has been shown to benefit an athlete’s performance at both elevation and sea level. In the short term, individuals traveling to altitude may experience acute altitude sickness in the form of nausea, headache, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath which will lessen over time.
5 Tips to Performing at Altitude
When to Arrive: If you live at sea level, but are planning a cycling trip to altitude, when you arrive can make all of the difference. In order to optimize performance, literature suggests that you should arrive either 2 weeks early, or only 24 hours in advance. While arriving 2 weeks early won’t be enough to fully acclimate, it may be enough for partial or mild acclimation. When first arriving in altitude you might consider decreasing your training intensity to 60-70 percent of your sea level numbers and working your way up over the 2 weeks’ time frame. For total acclimation you would need 3-6 weeks of exposure. On the other hand, arriving 24 hours in advance will not offer any acclimation, but it is likely that symptoms of altitude sickness will not set in before your event.
These two options can be difficult to navigate because some people might not be able to escape every day responsibilities for two weeks and 24 hours can pose an issue for course inspection and preparation. This is where personal experience can benefit a rider in order to know how quickly his or her body’s symptoms of altitude discomfort usually subside.
Hydration: When training in altitude your body is much more susceptible to dehydration than it is at sea level. A combination of the dry air and other physiological factors play against the body’s ability to stay hydrated at high elevations. While hydration should be tailored to each individual’s needs, a good place to start is to consume 3-5 Liters of fluids per day when you are at altitude. It is also valuable to arrive at elevation in a hydrated state.
Nutrition: Your body’s nutritional needs at altitude can be difficult to gauge because your body doesn’t always send you the right signals. At altitude your metabolism increases and your body will utilize more carbohydrates. Simultaneously, altitude often suppresses appetite. This means that paying attention to your caloric expenditure and caloric intake will be even more important and it might be worth counting your calories so that unplanned weight loss does not occur. For this same reason, it might be important to eat more than your hunger response is suggesting.
Sleep: Another important element to note is that sleep is often disturbed when at altitude. Due to the lack of oxygen in the air, the brain is more likely to keep you awake or only allow for light sleeping. If you only plan to travel to altitude for a short period of time then consider getting plenty of rest prior to ascending. If your trip will be longer and you are struggling with a lack of sleep then try doing breath work or meditation before going to bed.
Pacing Strategies: It is extremely important to pace yourself at altitude. Not only will the lack of oxygen make it more difficult to carry the same speeds or intensities that you are used to carrying at sea level, but you will not be able to recover as quickly at altitude either. If you go too fast at the start of your ride then you may find it difficult to continue on. Start your ride on the conservative side. Keep in mind that when acclimating to elevation, endurance exercise will be the most challenging.
Ground Your Expectations
Even though you are geographically higher, it’s important to keep your expectations grounded. Anticipate the fact that you may not feel optimal and that your performance may lag. Often times, understanding limitations allows you to better capitalize on opportunity.
“Exercise at Altitude.” Physiology of Sport and Exercise, by W. Larry Kenney et al., Human Kinetics, 2015, pp. 323–343.