Let's Get High.
I love the mountains. It took 22 years for me to venture west of the Mississippi River, but once I did, I was hooked. For the most part, the mountains have loved me. I’ve competed in some insanely high places – regularly in the States, and while I am far from bulletproof, I’ve found increasing levels of success from reviewing racing notes and journals prior to travel over the years.
I’ve got some lofty plans (Read: Borderline stupid) on tap for 2017 in addition to Leadville, which has motivated me to take pause and review the good stuff from year’s past. Whether you are gearing up to join me in The Race Across the Sky, an epic Trans Rockies run, or planning to grab some big air in the Alps, these have been some secrets that have helped me feel (and compete!) well despite hanging my hat at sea level each and every evening.
1) Use the Google. If you’re headed north of 6500 feet, you’re going to be affected. Period. But knowing “how high” is actually pretty important for your training prep (wait for #5). Do your research.
Now, let’s crush one misconception here. It’s not that there’s less oxygen at higher altitude. It’s the barometric pressure that decreases as one rises in altitude that causes the problem. Stated simply, lower air pressure makes it more difficult for oxygen to enter our vascular system (i.e. the engine). How much more difficult? Well… who likes numbers? This handy chart represents percentage “compromised” as compared to sea level (0%).
Sea Level 0% 6,000 -22% 12,000 -39%
1,000 -4% 7,000 -25% 13,000 -41%
2,000 -8% 8,000 -28% 14,000 -44%
3,000 -12% 9,000 -31% 15,000 -46%
4,000 -15% 10,000 -34% 16,000 -48%
5,000 -19% 11,000 -36% 17,000 -50%
2) There are No Shortcuts. If you want to compete well, you are going to have to be meticulous in your training prep. Period. I know that I will likely receive a barrage of comments on this, but… leave your pills and nose strips at home. There are no shortcuts when you compete at altitude. Your fitness is there, or it isn’t. You’ve acclimatized or you haven’t. Own it, and set your expectations accordingly (Read: Don’t be dumb). Your body is giving you horrible side effects because it’s screaming out for you to listen. So… listen.
Sure, your doc might recommend acetazolamide (Diamox) – this drug does NOT mask the symptoms (so, you’ll still feel terrible), but it is one of the few that can treat the problem. You might also reach for an Advil when your muscles start to ache or your head feels like it’s actually going to crack open. Don’t. Seriously, don’t even jack with your kidneys or gamble with intestinal “leakage.” Sport Legs and salt tabs? Negative. You’ll end up on an IV bag faster than I can say “hot mess.” Dehydration is the reason you’re cramping - not low sodium.
Want to give yourself the best opportunity to weather the storm? Drink twice as much as you normally would, fuel with highly absorbable calories, moderate your electrolyte intake, and steer clear of alcohol.
3) Be Informed. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) typically starts within 24 hours at elevation – dizziness, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, etc. If you’re lucky, you can jam in the night before your event and squeak out before the symptoms begin. However, this is not super reliable, as many folks can have side effects within 6 hours.
While we do know that 2-3 weeks is ideal for acclimatization, it’s just not practical for most of us. Symptoms typically vanish within 3-5 days at altitude, with most of the physiological changes (more RBCs!!!) happening within the first week. Figure out what works for you, and even though you’re still huffing and puffing up the stairs on Day 3, BELIEVE that it’s getting better. It is. Remember, the magic happens internally within 3-5 days.
4) Over-Prepare, then Trust Your Training. Your heart works remarkably well at altitude. You might notice an initial HR increase with a slightly decreased stroke volume, but this will settle within those first few days. Your brain is actually the problem. Hypoxia kicks your central nervous system’s ass. Disorientation and extreme mental fatigue? YES. I don’t actually remember a FULL HOUR of time in a race last year above 12,000 feet where I was redlining.
How did I survive? Lots and lots of technical practice, training at fairly extreme levels of fatigue well in advance at sea level, and a big ole’ pat on the back from Lady Luck. Anticipate unexpected conditions and outcomes and prepare to the best of your abilities far in advance.
5) Believe You Can Be Successful. I would challenge you to guess how many athletes living at sea level on a regular basis show up in the top 15 on the Hardrock or Leadville results? The answer is VERY FEW, but I (Taurus by birth) stubbornly believed that I could. We are at a disadvantage, but altitude is more winnable than most think.
Change your attitude, harness a brilliant, yet intense motivation, and nail your prep logistics. I guarantee you can change your result.
Final thoughts? Prepare – thoroughly. Ping me if you want specifics!