In most cases, you’ll need at least a few weeks to see the blood-boosting benefits of high-altitude training.
In the Boulder Center For Sports Medicine (BCSM) performance lab, I move on to one of the more pressing questions runners considering a stint at altitude have: How long is enough? That is, what’s the minimum amount of time a runner needs to remain at high altitude in order to accrue maximum benefits and reach a plateau stage? Keeping in mind the ten-day lag between EPO production and RBC synthesis, I propose based on the fact that EPO levels return to baseline after about 25 to 28 days, five to six weeks should give runners all that they need.
St. Pierre answers this comprehensively. “People ask this a lot,” he says. “My answer is always, some is better than none. If you can only do seven days, then do seven days.” He notes that a lot of altitude camps run for three weeks, and proposes that because of adaptations that occur in the fourth week, extending such trips by an additional seven days is well worth it.
Pickels, meanwhile, confirms what I have long believed: that runners who do an altitude stint without the live-high/train-low aspect and still improve their performances after returning to sea level almost certainly do so as a result of simply training more than they had trained previously during their stay at elevation, where the availability of trails, training partners and favorable weather is virtually limitless.
Both physiologists offer some general advice: When you get to high altitude, take iron supplements – your body will need the extra iron for the increased hemoglobin synthesis that’s soon to follow. If you are sick when you arrive, even with a cold, don’t bother trying to take advantage of the altitude because EPO is suppressed under such conditions. Similarly, if you turn out to be among the people who develop high-elevation sickness – something unrelated to fitness that strikes genetically predisposed people idiosyncratically – quit the show and go back to the lowlands.
When I note how long it takes me to recover between short, fast intervals – 400s at 3,000-meter race pace, say – Pickels mentions an interesting aspect of doing these kinds of workouts with supplemental oxygen. “Not only can you do the reps faster,” he says, “but the recovery time is much shorter, and that cuts down on the total workout time. That means you recover more quickly between workouts overall.”
This leads me to ask whether he believes that a given level of mileage run at high altitude translates into something greater at sea level. If I run 70 miles a week in Boulder, say, does that entail the physical workload of something more than that – maybe 80, 85 at sea level? Pickels agrees that it does, but whether this is merely fatiguing versus something that results in an effective training-stimulus boost is unclear.
I note drinking a great deal of water and other fluids since coming to Colorado, and that in contrast to my experience in South Florida – where prodigious sweating was the norm for 10 ½ months of the year – I didn’t necessarily feel thirsty when I theoretically should, and that I had to force myself to drink enough to stay hydrated enough to produce clear urine consistently. Pickels again has the answer. In very dry climates such as Boulder’s, sweating is a very efficient process, meaning that only a small amount of sweat need be excreted in order to cool a running body off. This is because Boulder sweat evaporates more or less immediately on encountering the dry ambient air, unlike Fort Lauderdale sweat, which collects in gross abundance on the body because the humid air can’t accept it. “That amount of sweat means losing a lot of electrolytes with it,” explains Pickels. “That causes a big volumetric drive to drink. We don’t have that here.” Instead, people living at high altitudes experience a lot of “insensible water loss” – water lost through the lungs and skin that can’t be seen, a situation compounded by the fact that people take more breaths at high altitude than at sea level, even at rest.
Moving on to the who raison d’etre of high-altitude training, I ask how much lead time a runner should allow between returning to sea level and racing there. Pickels recommends about two to three weeks, as this is enough to allow for a few quality speed sessions, but not enough to lose the blood-boosting benefits of high altitude. He also says that opinions about sea-level-based runners prepping for a race at altitude differ; some wait until the last minute to travel to the race site so that their training isn’t compromised, while others choose to acclimatize for several weeks.
With that, I thank my hosts and am on my way.
You now know what to expect if you’re considering training at high altitude or will merely be taking a ski vacation or other trip to a high-altitude destination such as the Rockies, the Sierra Nevada or even the higher parts of the Smokies in the East. Understand that if your trip lasts less than a week, you won’t have stayed for long enough to adjust to the altitude difference, but you’ll certainly have felt the effects. Drink plenty of water, take it easy on your runs, and if you happen to find yourself in Colorado’s Front Range, enjoy the scenery.