Carrie Barrett is a USAT Level 1 coach, endurance athlete, and freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a monthly contributor to Austin Fit Magazine and her other articles have appeared on Ironman.com, TrainingPeaks.com and Lavamagazine.com.
Tahoe Mountain Sports is proud to welcome the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe on September 22nd. This event features a 2.4-mile swim on the waters of North Lake Tahoe, a 112-mile bike with picturesque views of the lake and natural surroundings, and a 26.2-mile run that starts and finishes at Squaw Valley. About 3,000 athletes from all over the world are registered for this race, which is sure to become a new favorite on the Ironman circuit for its beautiful scenery, pristine waters, and family-friendly atmosphere. The average elevation of Lake Tahoe and its surroundings is just over 6,000 feet and, according to Ironman.com, the bike course will actually climb to over 7,200 feet.
Training for an Ironman is certainly rigorous, but athletes coming from sea level or lower elevation must also be aware of the effects that altitude will have on their bodies. It’s not uncommon to feel dizzy, lightheaded, nauseous, and short of breath as your body adapts to less oxygen. Colten Smith, mountain climber and owner of Altimax Training in Austin, Texas, and Meredith Terranova, ultra endurance athlete, coach, and owner of Eating and Living Healthy were kind enough to provide many helpful tips for athletes racing at altitude. Follow this advice to prepare yourself as much as possible, and when you get to Tahoe be sure to visit Tahoe Mountain Sports for many race needs and supplies. They’re located directly across the street from the swim-bike transition in Kings Beach, CA.
Intermittent Hypoxic Training– As an avid mountain and glacier climber, Colten Smith wanted to do as much as he could prior to his climbs to prepare for the altitude. After researching both hypoxic tents and intermittent hypoxic training (IHT) machines, he felt that the IHT machines were better for his performance. “I tested a tent for 30 minutes,” he said. “You essentially zip yourself in a plastic bag that blows in air with reduced oxygen. I didn’t think it would be comfortable for me to sleep in a hot and noisy tent, especially since sleep is also crucial to altitude adjustment.” In 2004, he opened Altimax Training that serviced anyone looking to perform better at higher altitudes. With IHT, you mimic interval training by wearing a mask for five minutes and then taking it off for five minutes. While the mask is on, they dial the oxygen back to about 12% and monitor blood oxygen levels. They are looking for about 78-80% blood oxygen level in the first five minutes. At this point, your body starts excreting its natural erythropoietin (EPO) and tells the body to produce more red blood cells. After a session or two, your body will adapt to the 12% oxygen level, so they’ll begin to decrease it further. The goal with IHT is to train the body to become more efficient at dealing with less and less oxygen. An optimum level is 9-10%, which simulates an altitude of 21,600 ft. Each session lasts about an hour and Colten recommends a protocol of five days per week for about four weeks leading up to your event.
While intermittent hypoxic training may not be available in your area, there are certainly other things you can do and foods you can eat to prepare your body for the inevitable effects of racing at altitude.
Train At Altitude- If possible, visit the course or similar elevation prior to race day to feel the effects that the altitude will have on your body. Know and understand what physiological changes will take place when you move to air with less oxygen.
Hydration – The minute you become dehydrated, your body’s ability to deal with the altitude is diminished. At altitude, humidity decreases and the air is colder and dryer. Naturally, you begin breathing harder and expelling more moisture. Both Smith and Terranova express the importance of hydration prior to leaving for elevation. “I teach clients that there is absolutely no replacement for being well hydrated and in electrolyte balance when going to higher altitude,” stresses Terranova. “This means treating your environment, especially if you are from a warmer climate, like you are still in the heat.” She recommends 60-100 ounces of decaffeinated fluids per day with electrolyte supplements such as Nuun tablets. Smith also recommends loading up on hydration both before you leave and as soon as you get past security at the airport. “Fill up or buy a couple of water bottles as soon as you get on the plane,” he recommends, “and stay hydrated at your destination.” Athletes may consider a Vapur water bottle that travels well and collapses down to almost nothing, hardly taking up any space in the suitcase.
When to Arrive at Altitude– Examples and research are showing that, if possible, it is best to either arrive about 24 hours before your event or at least a week prior to get fully acclimated. College and professional athletes who travel to altitude for games usually wait until the night before or even the day of the event to fly since they aren’t able to get up there several weeks in advance. In essence, they are trying to beat the effects that the altitude will have on their abilities to extract as much oxygen out of the air as possible. The two-to-four day window is not recommended, but if this is your only option, remember to begin the hydration process prior to departure.
Dress for Altitude Success- On race day, Smith recommends protecting extremities like your hands and feet, especially if the morning will be cold. Try Wigwam Ironman Endur Pro Socks. The air will be dryer and cooler at elevation. Your body wants to keep blood near the heart, which is why your fingers and toes get cold and have a hard time warming up. Athletes may want to wear gloves and extra socks for the morning, but don’t overdress. Wearing too many layers will actually start the sweating process which will, in turn, start the dehydration process. Plan to be a little cool at the start and wear moisture-wicking material to keep the moisture inside. Also, think about changing socks in between the bike and run to keep your feet dry.
Manage Expectations- Legendary mountain climber, Scott Fischer, once said, “It’s attitude, not altitude.” Your race day attitude will ultimately determine your success. This is certainly true at any elevation, but it’s vital to realize that you simply won’t be able to go as hard or as fast as you can at sea level. Don’t fight it. Instead, set realistic goals and expectations when racing at altitude. Understand that if you are struggling, it doesn’t mean you aren’t fit. It simply means your body cannot utilize the oxygen at that level. Slow yourself down and take in plenty of hydration. Work with your coach to determine realistic goals for racing at 6,000+ feet of elevation.
Wear Sunscreen- The air temperature is cooler and dryer at altitude, so many people coming from sea level severely underestimate the power of the sun. Wearing sunscreen during your Ironman is a must, especially since you’ll be exposed for most of the day. Take advantage of volunteers outside of transition who may be applying sunscreen. Five extra seconds can save you days worth of painful showers. At Tahoe Mountain Sports, they recommend Sol Sunguard Altitude SPF 40 Sunscreen.
Training Tips for Success – If you don’t live at elevation and don’t have access to intermittent hypoxic training, Terranova does recommend adding in some specific hill training and high intensity interval training to boost maximal oxygen intake (VO2 max) and increase aerobic fitness. She also recommends breath-control swim sets (hypoxic breathing) where you breathe every seven or nine strokes. The goal of training for a race at altitude is to best prepare your body for the rigors of having less oxygen to utilize. Again, it’s important to work with a coach who understands a good training balance and the effects that altitude will have on your body. These intense workouts aren’t recommended every day.
As a climber, Smith and numerous experts also recommend that, if possible, once you go to a higher altitude environment, it is best to sleep lower than the maximum amount you reached. For example, if you head to Tahoe to train at 6,000 feet, Smith recommends sleeping at a lower altitude. Consider this when looking for hotels and race accommodations. There will be several thousand people looking for lodging this weekend, so you may try heading down from the mountains in either direction toward Reno or Sacramento.
Eat for Altitude Success – Terranova recommends foods and vitamins shown to help with altitude and increase red blood cell production. These include foods rich in iron like red meat, dark leafy greens (spinach), beans and lentils. Folic acid is also important and found in foods like dark leafy greens (kale and spinach), beans, peas, and nuts. Athletes also want to consume foods high in B-12 and B-6 which also include dark leafy greens, red meat, fish, dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds. As Terranova notes, vegetarian and vegans have plenty of food options to increase their red blood cell count!
Beware of companies trying to sell supplements to decrease effects of altitude. Across the board, notes Terranova, both Vitamin C (500-1000mg) and L-glutamine were solid recommendations. With L-glutamine, the easiest way to get it is to take a Branch Chain Amino Acid supplement, which also helps with inflammation and recovery.
While you certainly can’t erase the physiological effects that altitude has on your body, these tips provide ways to prepare for and decrease those effects. Best of luck at the inaugural Ironman Lake Tahoe!
Adam Broderick manages the web content at Tahoe Mountain Sports. When he is not in the office, he tries his best to be in the field doing something awesome.