Tips for Better Altitude Performance

“It is always better to start more conservative at altitude. Entering into your anaerobic capacity makes for a long day.”

Have you raced at altitude and underperformed? Are you heading above 3,000 feet and wondering how to handle it? There are multiple tips and tricks that every athlete should know to make their altitude experience better. Whether it’s focusing on hydration or proper pacing, these tips should help prepare you for your next adventure!

Performance

A study of athletes training at the Olympic Training Center (Colorado Springs, CO) showed a reduction of 1% VO2max for every 305m above see level (Jackson & Sharkey, 1988). Athletes can begin to see significant performance losses around 3,000 ft. As you go upwards of 5280 ft (Denver, CO), athletes should expect to see a decline of 5.27%

Altitude vs Performance Loss

With VO2max being your ceiling of aerobic performance, we know that our potential as endurance athletes is being reduced at altitude.  While it isn’t exact, athletes can expect to perform 5.27% slower in Denver than they would in Houston. Each athlete should understand this chart and go to altitude with realistic expectations and pacing strategies.  

Pacing

Pacing should be a strong consideration for athletes when racing at altitude. Due to limited oxygen, it is often harder to recover from anaerobic efforts. For endurance events, we strongly recommend a pacing strategy that eliminates any surging. Find what your VO2max pacing is, then reduce it based on the chart above. From there, re-calculate your zones to find your ideal pacing. It is always better to start more conservative at altitude. Entering into your anaerobic capacity makes for a long day.

Hydration

While at altitude, it’s important that you stay hydrated. We recommend you drink an extra 1-1.5 liter’s of water when above 5,000 ft. At altitude, your body will work harder to maintain normal functions. Factors such as dry air, rapid breathing, and urinating more will cause you to become dehydrated. If you know you are going to altitude, be sure to always have a water bottle on hand and take sips every 10-15 minutes. Steady intake of water (in a safe manner) will help alleviate you from dehydration and potential altitude sickness. 

Acclimating

If you’re getting ready for a major race (Leadville, Western States, etc), but you don’t have the time or money to acclimate for 14-21 days, don’t fret, there is another option!  Research has shown a method of training high and living low to help acclimate faster.  For example, if you were racing Leadville and arrived in Colorado 3 days prior, you may look to find a hotel at a lower elevation and visit the race site each day. This will allow you to gain exposure to the higher altitude and then sleep at a lower altitude. This will stress the body and allow it to adapt faster. If you can’t arrive at the venue 3 days prior, there is no advantage to holding off until the last second. Per a study (Foss et. al, 1985), there is no physiological benefit between 14 hours at altitude or 2 hours at altitude. Simply arrive at the venue whenever works best for your logistics.

Conclusion

Some of the best, most exciting races or adventures are done at altitude. There is no reason to fear them if you have a sound plan in place. Next time you go race at altitude, or plan your hiking/skiing adventure, be sure to utilize these tips. By knowing your limitations, staying hydrated, and sleeping lower than the event, you will do yourself a major favor! Go check out adventures at altitude and be confident as you explore perfection! 

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