How important is sea level training if you live in the mountains?
The Boulder Center for Sports Medicine lies at the western edge of town, in the shadow of Flagstaff Mountain. It is regarded as one of the top facilities of its kind in the United States. A glance at the newspaper clippings posted in the waiting room informs visitors that world-class runners, cyclists and triathletes darken the BCSM’s doors as often as hipsters in skinny jeans wander into the Starbucks on Pearl Street. At 9:00 on a Monday morning, the place is already busy, with clients ranging from middle-aged people in cycling garb to senior citizens maneuvering about on crutches. The BCSM is as much a rehab center for the masses as it is a haven for endurance studs.
I am greeted by Rob Pickels, one of the exercise physiologists on staff. Pickels leads me to the room where he spends most of his day, a large open space laden with all manner of exercise equipment and ancillary devices. “That’s where most of the action is,” he says, gesturing toward a men seated on a bicycle and being attended to by one of Pickels’ colleagues. The rider is being custom-fitted to ensure maximum efficiency and power when he rides outdoors. Pickels, the Ithaca College record holder in the 400-meter hurdles, is himself is on crutches, having fractured his hip two months earlier in a bicycle crash. It hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm. He leads me to a far corner of the room, where an unpretentiously ordinary treadmill sits.
“This is it,” he says. He lifts a transparent face mask, familiar to anyone who’s ever needed oxygen in an ambulance or similar setting, from its housing. “We cut holes in it so that people can breathe more easily.” The mask is connected to tubing that disappears into a console on the adjacent wall that holds a flow-rate meter and stopcock. “This connects to a general oxygen supply in the building. We set the flow rate at 15 liters a minute, they choose the speed and they’re good to go.”
The deal is this: Boulder does not lend itself to a true live high/train low scheme. Although 5,300’ is modest by high-altitude standards, getting below 4,000’ means ranging a lot farther than most people have the time or inclination to pursue. Instead, when it comes time for the high-speed repetitions or tempo runs runners have to mix into their training in order to protect their racing fitness, they come to the BCSM and use supplemental oxygen to mimic sea-level conditions. It is, in effect, the inverse of how people who live at sea level and sleep in hypoxic tents go about their training business.
I ask Pickels if non-elite runners make use of this set-up. Yes, he tells me. Not a great many, but more than a few. I remind myself that I’m in Boulder and drop the thought.
At this point I have a lot of questions about altitude acclimatization in general. Pickels’ co-worker, Adam St. Pierre – another former hurdler and an attendee of an altitude seminar at the American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting in Denver the previous week, where Pickels gave a lecture – joins the discussion, which now involves three New Hampshire transplants. Pickels has already explained to me, via e-mail, that runners who train exclusively at high altitude do experience a dramatic increase in sustainable intensity when they compete at sea level, but are at a disadvantage compared to sea-level runners who are used to training at that intensity. Enter supplemental oxygen, which not only combats this effect but makes these runners stronger high-altitude competitors as well – useful for permanent residents of high-altitude locales who do most, if not all, of their racing in hypoxic conditions.
Pickels says that even marathoners require a certain amount of far-faster-than-race-pace work to be at their best, so they use the facility, though perhaps not as often as track runners. I agree with him, as my fastest marathons were all preceded by at least a modest amount of track and road work at 3,000-meter race pace or faster. On the other hand, two-time Olympic marathoner and exercise physiologist Pete Pfitzinger says, “marathoners can achieve their best at an altitude of 1,500 to 1,800 meters [about 5,000’ to 6,000’] because they can still do their marathon-pace runs and other tempo runs at the desired pace.” He adds, this approach also works well for Olympic distance triathletes, because they race their 10K run leg at approximately an elite runner’s half marathon pace. He also says that strides (near-sprints) of no longer than 25 seconds are great for turnover preservation because they do not result in the accumulation of lactic acid.
Lize Brittin was a four-time Colorado high school state champion and a two-time Kinney (now Foot Locker) finalist who won the Pikes Peak Ascent at age 16, setting a course record in the process. She’s also believed to be the first person to run to the top of Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak. Today she runs almost exclusively on hilly trails. It’s unlikely that any fast runner is more familiar with hypoxia than Brittin. I asked her if she ever believed she was at a disadvantage racing girls at the Kinney finals in San Diego. “I only ran a handful of races at sea level and didn’t really notice anything subjectively different in terms of speed,” Brittin says, “but my coach and I had discussed the fact that I would probably be at a disadvantage in terms of leg turnover. It did seem easier on my heart and lungs.” Chances are, however, that Brittin and other lifelong high-elevation residents would notice a drastic drop in their track times if they spent four or five weeks doing high-intensity sharpening and racing at sea level.
In the next installment of this series you’ll get all the details you want and then some about the specific effects of altitude training and what to expect from it.