The "Other" Altitude Training

When athletes think about traveling to a different altitude to race, they often think about the difficulties associated with racing at a higher altitude.  However, athletes who live at altitude and travel down to sea level to compete also face difficulties.  While altitude can be great for improving endurance performance, it doesn’t allow an athlete to train at very high intensities (hence the idea of “live high, train low”).  This lack of high intensity training is problematic since races are often won as a result of these high intensity efforts (sprint finishes, breaking away, etc.). 

To prepare for sea level races, there are a number of different things an altitude-residing athlete can do.  One thing is to do efforts while breathing supplemental oxygen.  By breathing in a gas concentration with greater amounts of oxygen, an athlete can simulate riding at sea level and can do high intensity efforts.  This type of training does have drawbacks, though.  The most obvious is that you need a way to get supplemental oxygen, which isn’t the easiest or the cheapest.  Also, you’ll need extra time to recover from a workout with supplemental oxygen. 

Another option is to train at sea level power while at altitude.  For example, if you normally do 5min VO2max intervals at 300W at altitude, you could be expected to do ~320W at sea level.  So, doing efforts at 320W while at altitude can help you prepare the body (and the mind) for sea level.  Of course, you won’t be able to do 5min at 320W so you’ll have to shorten the efforts.

Races at sea level will also involve a greater volume of efforts at a high intensity.  This can also be trained for while at altitude.  One of our favorite interval sessions is “controlled” 40/20’s.  With traditional 40/20’s, 40sec is spent going all out and 20sec is spent riding easy.  In the “controlled” version, the max effort is replaced by riding at a high VO2max pace.  An effort which is difficult, but repeatable.  These efforts help you accumulate more time at a VO­2max power and therefore help you better prepare for sea level racing. 

The intervals discussed here are just a few of the different ways an athlete at altitude can prepare for racing at sea level.  It’s not usually something that folks tend to be concerned about but can make a big difference on race day.  And just so no one feels left out, for those of you living at sea level, these efforts can still be incorporated into your training and help you get faster.  Thanks for reading!