Training for the Leadville 100 mountain bike race found me gasping for air. And not just toward the top of Columbine climb (12,600 ft. elevation). The race starts in the town of Leadville at 10,200 feet. During early training rides, I was panting like a dog. Will I reach my race goal to finish under 12 hours if I can’t breathe?
How long has it been since you exercised at altitude? Other than a day hike or two, most of my exercise in the last few years has been at elevations around a mile high. I live at 5,280 feet and climb the local mesa to around 6,200 feet or bike up Lookout mountain to around 7,200 feet elevation. Why am I concerned? Some Leadville racers live (and train) at sea level. Oh, but I’m 61, started mountain biking only a year ago and could use another YEAR of training. Excuses Excuses!
Since my motto is “I am Determined”, I researched breathing and training at elevation to find any special techniques to help this old lady breathe a little easier.
Joe Friel’s blog had some interesting information about altitude:
“As the altitude increases aerobic function decreases and so FTP (Functional Threshold Power) decreases. And as you acclimate to a new, higher altitude your aerobic function and FTP improve, but they never attain the level you would have at a lower altitude.
While aerobic power is gained at altitude, muscular power is lost. One simply can’t train at as high an intensity (as measured by power, pace or speed–not HR) for endurance events. You’ll simply be going slower/less powerfully at any given HR for extended periods of time.“
I scoured Training Peaks for information – Coach Jake says:
“As you gain altitude there is a reduced amount of pO2 (partial oxygen pressure) meaning that there is less oxygen for your blood to carry to your muscles. The USA Pro Challenge takes place mostly above 7,000 ft and at that altitude the body will take in at least 25 percent less oxygen per breath because of the reduced amount of pO2 in the air when compared to sea level. With less oxygen available to deliver to the muscles, riders will see a decrease in performance when compared to lower altitudes.
The effects to your body when racing at altitude are higher heart rate and lower power output. Since you are getting less oxygen to your muscles your body increases it’s heart rate to help bring in more oxygen which means you reach your max output quicker. This leads to a lower Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and also makes it harder to recover from maximal efforts.
They now have to readjust their FTP, pacing strategies and be careful not to attack too often or dig too deep to stay with riders surging on the climbs. With the reduced amount of oxygen being delivered to the muscles it becomes harder to catch your breath and recover. While riders can do some work to prepare for racing in thin air, much of it comes down to proper pacing and knowing the limits.”
The Take-Home: learn to pace myself & know my limits. The light bulb is glaring; this all takes time. For my body to accommodate. For my mind to comprehend. With each new challenge of this journey in mountain biking, my system experiences, processes and files away information so eventually I can move on to learning another aspect of how to race.
My training has involved pushing pedals (flat pedals initially but that’s another story) and reviewing my very simple computer which records time on the bike, miles covered, maximum speed and average speed of that ride. I don’t track my heart rate, cadence or power. I don’t know my wattage, can’t calculate FTP.
So what have I done to get past the gasps? I trained at high elevation in Leadville three times/week. I used the mantra “PATIENCE” while climbing slowly, pacing myself, as my body learned to deal with less oxygen. I added some workouts to my training program pushing more on climbs – trying to use a harder gear than I would normally choose while maintaining a fast (ok, relatively speaking) pace. Learning my limits. I put in the miles back down at a mile high where I had more power.
My most important tidbits? I’m learning to slow my breathing, exhaling deeply with effort (rather than that panting like a dog). Thus my lungs carry a little more oxygen to those hard working muscles while pedaling.
C.W. Shurman states:
“Since the atmospheric pressure changes the higher you go, it becomes increasingly difficult to get the oxygen you need into your lungs. By pursing your lips and exhaling forcefully and fully, you let the carbon dioxide in your lungs escape, allowing for a more ready exchange with oxygen in the ‘thinner air.'”
I changed shoes – clipping in rather than using flat pedals, which gives me more forward movement per each pedal stroke. And through all of this training, I have decreased some of the “OMG I’m freakin out” because I’m descending those mountains so fast”. Fear, you know, elevates the heart rate and respiratory rate with a cascade of chemicals released into my bloodstream. Fear diverts some of my resources needed to pedal that bike over to dealing with a crisis that is not real.
The key technique and most important of all: I smile, a lot. ‘Cause I’m outside. Enjoying life. Enjoying nature. Challenging myself beyond my wildest imagination and dreams.
Determined. At Altitude.