However, one of the toughest challenges a cyclist can face is completing all of their training at their low-elevation residences, and then traveling to ride or compete in a race at high altitude. For events like the Leadville 100, The Breck Epic, and The Triple Bypass, many are left questioning what to expect when riding at elevation and what are the best ways to acclimate faster to ensure optimum performance.
For starters, it’s best to understand how the body responds to altitude. The post, Understanding the Challenges of High-Altitude Racing at the Leadville 100 and USA Pro Cycling Challenge, gives us a detailed understanding. “The basics of altitude work like this: as you go higher the air becomes less dense, which means the oxygen molecules are more spread out. As a result, when you breathe in and fill your lungs, there are fewer oxygen molecules in that volume of air.” More so, as you increase in elevation, heart rate and breathing rates at rest will be increasing elevated as your body tries to pull more air through the lungs so it can grab the oxygen it wants.
While at rest at altitude, you might experience a combination of headache, poor sleep, fatigue, and dizziness. While training, racing, or participating in an event at altitude, most likely you’ll discover an elevated heart rate and reduced power. And, your recovery rate between hard efforts will be longer and maybe not even complete. So, what can you do if you want to perform your best at altitude?
Obviously, a no brainer is to have your bike and the correct bike parts in order! If you are accustomed to riding on flat terrain, you’ll want to have the appropriate gearing for your event. Specific to altitude acclimations, there is definitely science and research behind acclimating for cycling performance but without getting too technical, following are some of most common approaches.
- Acclimate – Spending time at higher elevations enables the body to adapt and increase the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This improves your ability to deliver oxygen to the brain and working muscles at all levels of activity, including high-intensity exercise. The longer you can acclimatize – the better. Keep in mind, true acclimation can take three weeks or more.
- Hydrate Drink plenty of liquids. High elevations can cause fluid loss, so it’s important to stay well hydrated. Your best course of action is to stick with water or liquids that replace electrolytes and avoid sugary or caffeinated beverages. These liquids act as diuretics and can dehydrate you.
- Tools – Use your training tools for biofeedback. It’s important to know your limits going into an event and modify your strategy if necessary. This includes dialing in your race day nutrition requirements, heart rate limits, and using your power meter for feedback. Power meters are especially useful because they help riders to gauge their efforts. To maximize your opportunity for best performance, consider running course intelligence and learn the course and the conditions due to time of day. You’ll be better equipped to know when to attack and when to recover as it relates to time of day (heat), and course profile.
Overall, different people respond differently to attitude. Experiment with what works for you. And, while you might not get the same results racing at altitude as you do at sea level, the rewards of riding in beautiful Colorado is a reward in and of itself.