• Altitude Training for Athletic Success - Part II


    Gale Bernhardt ©2018

    The primary reason many athletes seek high altitude training locations is to help improve the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood and to increase the chemical in the body that makes oxygen more available to the muscles. In Part I we learned how the body responds in positive and negative ways to altitude stress. In Part II, we’ll look at strategies for training at altitude.

    Artificially live high and train low

    One training theory suggests you should live at a moderately high altitude and train at a lower one. This is commonly titled, “live high and train low”. Theoretically, this means living in the mountains to gain more oxygen-carrying capacity and driving to sea level to do your speed work to achieve maximum power.

    While nobody wants to spend that much time or expense driving, scientists have researched this kind of training using a “high-altitude house” that simulates living at 8,200 feet.  In one experiment, athletes spent 16 to 18 hours living inside the altitude house and did their training outside at sea level. These athletes showed the physiological improvements typical of living at altitude, and they had performance breakthroughs as well.

    In contrast, other athletes doing the same training but not living at altitude showed no gains either in physiology or performance.

    Live high and artificially train low

    If you don’t have access to an altitude house, while living at sea level, consider living at moderate altitude. The Northern Arizona University Center for High Altitude Training (altitude 6,512) considers altitudes between 5,000 and 8,500 feet to be ideal. This recommendation is similar to that of Dr. Randy Wilber, exercise physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado (altitude 6,035).

    While training at altitude is good for building red blood cells, it is not good for recovery from hard workouts. Dr. Wilber comments in his book, “Altitude Training and Athletic Performance”, that living at higher altitudes likely hampers training recovery. This is because of the reduced availability of oxygen for the muscle repair process.

    Recovery aside for a moment, once you are living high you need to do workouts at the same intensity or power output that you plan to use on race day. We learned in Part I that altitude hampers your ability to train at the same intensity that you would at sea level, so you will need to begin your training at your desired race intensity for shorter periods of time, with longer rest bouts so you can keep the power output high. As you progress through your training, you can increase the length of the work bouts and decrease rest time.

    If you are elite athlete at the Olympic Training Center (OTC), or otherwise have access to a physiology lab, another strategy is to utilize supplemental oxygen training for high-intensity workouts. Athletes at the OTC wear a mask over their nose and mouth to breath sea level oxygen while completing high-intensity workouts on a bike trainer that lets them know power output. This enables the cyclists to be sure power is not lost while living at altitude. Triathletes and runners complete running treadmill workouts utilizing supplemental oxygen, clipping along at sea level race pace.

    Supplemental oxygen workouts are very stressful and the coaches and athletes must be very careful that full recovery is accomplished before another supplemental O2 workout is completed.

    If living at altitude or simulating altitude is not a reality for you, can gains be made by taking shorter trips to high altitude? Unfortunately, for the average cyclist who just wants to get faster, studies on short-term altitude exposure are inconclusive. Some studies suggest that performance increases after a period of high-altitude training, while others indicate that simply training at sea level will yield faster race times. 

    Utilizing altitude training for a sea-level race

    • Train at moderately high altitudes for three to four weeks to get the full benefits.
    • While at altitude, maintain sea-level pace and power output by doing shorter work intervals, driving to lower altitudes or utilizing supplemental oxygen during workouts and perhaps for some portion of recovery periods as well.
    • Be certain to drink enough fluids at altitude to keep your urine a light straw color to avoid dehydration.

     Utilizing altitude training for racing at an altitude between 5,000 and 8,500 feet

    • Live and train at race altitude for three to four weeks.
    • Maintain high power output by doing shorter work intervals, drive to lower altitudes key workouts or utilize supplemental oxygen during workouts.
    • If you already live at this altitude, consider short trips to higher altitudes for some training sessions.

    Utilizing altitude training for racing at altitudes above 8,500 feet

    • Live at an altitude between 5,000 and 8,500 feet for three to four weeks.
    • Drive to higher altitudes for some training days and consider occasional overnight stays prior to training days. Keep recovery periods at lower altitudes.
    • Keep power output high by doing high-intensity work intervals at 5,000 to 8,500 feet, or lower. Or, consider using supplemental oxygen during workouts.

    Limited time and cash

    If you are a lowlander planning to race at altitude; but do not have the resources to live at altitude, consider arriving two or three days prior to the race start. More information on this strategy can be found here.

    Portions of the text reprinted from “Training Plans for Cyclists” by Gale Bernhardt, VeloPress.

    Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's ready-to-use, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, find some plans on Gale’s site and more plans on  



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