March 11, 2013
9:00 pm: you get to Boulder, Colorado excited try out one of the most intriguing athletic trends.
6:00 am: You wake up and jog up to a Boulder Canyon Rd ready to see how your body can thrive in thin air.
6:10 am: You feel a shortness of breath and a burning sensation deep in your throat. But you fight through it. This is what altitude training is all about. Fighting through the pain of altitude training will make sea-level running seem like a walk in the park.
Overtraining is one of the biggest pitfalls of high altitude training. Based on athletes I have talked to I would estimate that roughly half make this mistake. Nearly as many alter their exercise regiment in a way that detrains their muscles.
No serious athlete likes to tune down their training regiment, especially when they have devoted significant money and time travelling to a high altitude training locations.
Here is a quick guide to avoiding overtraining in high altitude while not detraining your body.
1) Focus on strength and skill training during first 3-5 days at altitude.
During the first 3-5 days at altitude young lungs will establish a ventilation pattern that will improve oxygenation of your blood. An enzyme called 2,3 DPG will also be synthesized in elevated amounts. This enzyme alters the nature of hemoglobin so that it delivers oxygen to your tissues more easily. These most immediate adaptations to altitude will enable you to tolerate higher training loads. It is wise to wait until they have occurred before you rush into a rigorous training regiment.
EPO production also spikes in this initial 3-5 day altitude exposure period. Since this is the primary performance adaptation we are seeking from altitude training it is wise to ensure it occurs optimally. Lactic acid production, which occurs as a result of high intensity exercise, has been shown to decrease blood EPO levels. This is another major reason to wait 3-5 days before entering a vigorous training regiment.
2) Adequate hydration to supports acclimatization and prevents release of overtraining hormones.
If you travel to Denver and complain about the altitude, nearly every resident will tell you to simply drink more water. There are several reasons why this is good advice, especially if you are planning on altitude training. During altitude training, you will dehydrate considerably faster than at sea level. Increased respiratory water loss, increased breathing rates, and increased urinary water loss all contribute to this accelerated dehydration.
Not only does your body lose more water to the dryer air, but it also adjusts to altitude by dehydrating itself. This is your body’s attempt to improve the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood by more heavily concentrating RBC’s and hemoglobin in the bloodstream. Urinary water loss also helps excrete byproducts that effect blood PH and pulmonary ventilation.
So dehydration is good at altitude? No, water loss via urination may be beneficial to acclimatization, however, a dehydrated body is at a much higher risk of overtraining. When your body is dehydrated hormonal changes occur to retain water more effectively in the body. This process also causes the release of a hormone called cortisol. In elevated levels, which are commonly reported in altitude training studies, this hormone breaks down muscle and tissues and weakens the immune system.
3) Avoid oxidative stress accumulation by decreasing training volume and supplementing with antioxidants.
What is oxidative stress? It is the accumulation of molecules called free radicals that occurs as a result of aerobic reactions in your body. Levels of oxidative stress are higher during high altitude exercise because of fluctuations in blood oxygen that occur. These unstable molecules act very similarly to cortisol and damage cells and tissues they encounter.
The two best ways to reduce oxidative stress are to reduce training volume and supplement with antioxidants. The most effective and active antioxidant that actually becomes depleted in your body at high altitude is glutathione. However, glutathione is not readily absorbable in the stomach. Athletes should instead supplement with its most significant precursors N-acetylcysteine and glutamine.
4) Increase recovery time in between both individual sets and individual high intensity workouts.
Continuing to do high intensity exercise is vital to avoid the infamous detraining effect associated with high altitude training. However, the body cannot perform high intensity exercise for as long as it can at sea level and requires more recovery time. For this reason we recommend shortening the length of distance speed intervals and adding an extra two minutes in between them. Another key point is to pay attention to soreness in the body, and take an extra day off in between high intensity workouts if needed.
Feel free to ask any questions about how to tailor your training regiment to reduce overtraining risks at altitude!