Traveling With Your Bike
By Brian Metzler
No matter how fit we feel in our cozy lowland training ground, most of us eventually test ourselves at high altitude - the great equalizer. For the untrained and unprepared, it can be a demoralizing, if not debilitating experience. However, with a little effort -- and some humility -- even lowlanders can have success training and racing in the high country. Here's a list of pointers critical for attempting a high-altitude adventure of any sort, derived from years of staving off headaches, hypothermia and even bears.
1) Get high
You know what I mean. There are two views here: live high, train high, or live high, train low. Either way, make every effort to spend time at altitude. This is the only way to physiologically acclimate. Also, arrive as early as possible to a race. Most research shows it takes at least two to three weeks to acclimate to altitude, but even a few days can help. (Acclimation is not necessary below about 3,000 feet).
2) Expect the worst
Even the best athletes usually feel lousy when first training at high altitudes. Headaches, dizziness and general malaise are quite common, but usually manageable. Train by total time, not pace. You will not be able to maintain the same pace at altitude.
There is approximately 40 percent less oxygen at 12,000 feet of elevation than at sea level, so your body will have to work that much harder. Remember, even at 5,000 feet, elite 10k times hover around two minutes slower than sea-level times.
Conditions are rarely ideal. Weather, trail conditions or perhaps a sprained ankle will all impede progress in the mountains; don't get discouraged if last month the same route took an hour less than today.
3) Train for Hills
Climb hills: If you can't find a hill, there is always a staircase or Stairmaster somewhere. Cyclists can do repeats on bridges or on-ramps. Descend hills: Trail runners, cyclists and multi-sport athletes who ignore this will pay dearly later with cramps and crashes. Power is key: Through weight training or specific workouts, focus on building power. Train with a heavy pack or in mud or snow.
4) Simulate race conditions
Trails in Eastern mountains differ considerably than those in the Rockies and other ranges of the West. If the hills are steep and rugged, practice on that terrain. Get used to potential weather-related problems such as snow or rain, mud, high water crossings and wind. Training in these conditions will toughen you up. If you will be racing in the mountains at night, train at night. Knowing what lighting systems or clothing to use can prevent major hassles.
5) Be prepared
At the very least, bring a lighweight shell, gloves, and hat; you might even add some wind pants and an insulated fleece jacket to keep warm in case of emergency. For every 1,000 feet of elevation gained, the temperature drops an average of 13 degrees Fahrenheit. And, thunderstorms or even snow can occur any time of year.
Always bring more water and food than you think you need. Proper hydration (more than usual) is imperative in keeping the headaches at bay. Also, mud and snow, or worse a sprained ankle at 12,000 feet, could mean an extra hour or more in the mountains (if not an overnight bivouac!).
Don't drink the water! Okay, many of us can't resist that cool mountain stream, but beware the microscopic giardia just waiting to make a home in your intestines. Use iodine or a water bottle filter or pack your own water.
One word - ibuprofen. The endurance athletes panacea works wonders on the hangover-like feeling of minor altitude sickness. Just don't overdo it.
And last, but not least, train with a friend, and let someone know where you will be.
Scott Boulbol is the co-author of "Trail Runner's Guide to Colorado: 50 Great Trail Runs" (1999, Fulcrum Publishing). He is competing in the 140.6-mile Mountain Extreme Triathlon on July 11 in Park City, Utah.
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