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Altitude Training: What You Still Don’t Know About Racing at Altitude  

Published by Spartan Race on Mon, 2015/06/01 - 01:00

Altitude 103

Written By: Jeff Godin Ph.D., CSCS, SGX

This is the third in a 3-part series about high-altitude training. Read the first pieces in the series, on the effects of altitude on oxygen levels in the body, here, and the second piece, on the benefits of training at altitude here.

Thin air is not the only factor that Spartan racers need to pay attention to when performing at altitude. There are a number of other environmental factors that could turn your race into a nightmare.

Dr J Altitude TrainingAir temperature is much cooler at higher elevations. Air temperature decreases approximately 1 degree Celsius for every 500 feet of ascent. The temperature change will be even more noticeable if there is wind. If there is not, the weather can change relatively quickly in the mountains, especially in the afternoon. It may have been a perfect day in the morning, but it is not uncommon for afternoon thunderstorms to roll in with a blink of an eye.

Dress in layers, or bring an extra layer with you, including a jacket that can break the wind. Being wet in a cold environment with exposure to the wind is a recipe for hypothermia. Anyone that has raced the Vermont Beast the last few years can attest to this. The weather was tolerable at the start line, but by the time racers made it to the top of Killington Mountain, the temperature change and exposure to the wind caused many racers to drop out. They weren’t prepared.

Killington Mountain has an elevation of only 4,000 feet, imagine what could be possible at heights twice that number?

Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate

Racing at altitude increases the probability of dehydration too. The air at altitude is drier which leads to a higher rate of water evaporation from the skin and clothing, and through breathing. Exercise scientists calls this "insensible sweat losses," because we literally have no idea that it is happening. There will be little to no accumulation of sweat on the skin or clothing. "Diuresis" (frequent urination) may also trick you into thinking you are hydrated.

The Breckenridge Beast will be a long race and dehydration is going to be a likely cause of fatigue. Make sure you are hydrated at the beginning of this or any similar race. Try the skin turgor test: Pinch the skin on the back of your hand and let go. If you are hydrated the skin should return to its normal shape quickly, if the skin retains its shape you are likely dehydrated.

Because everyone’s sweat rate is different, it is hard to give a one size fits all recommendation for fluid intake during the race. For an average person, working at an average intensity in moderate temperatures, one should generally drink about 7-10 ounces of fluid every 10 to 20 minutes. A larger person might need a little bit more and a smaller person might need little bit less. The warmer it is and the harder you are working means that you will be sweating more and you should drink more. If it is relatively cool and your race intensity is relatively low then you could get away with drinking less.

If you are thirsty, drink. Periodically check your clothing. If you see a crust of white forming on your shorts and t-shirt, it is an indication of a high sweat rate (and electrolyte losses), and you might want to drink more. Don’t forget those electrolytes either! Add some salt to your water, take electrolyte tablets; some racers prefer mustard or pickle juice. For every 34 ounces of fluid you drink, you should take between 800-1000 mg of sodium.

Dr J AltitudeKeep Your Skin Safe

Thin air also absorbs less solar radiation. That means higher exposure to the sun for you! Cover up with clothing or SPF 30+ sunscreen. Use a zinc or mineral based sunscreen unless you like lathering up in chemicals. Getting a sunburn on the course not only increases your chances of skin cancer but it also lowers your ability to eliminate heat. Your skin is your radiator. Blood flows through the muscles and picks up the heat the muscles are producing and delivers that heat to the surface of the body where it is let off into the environment. If the skin is "burned," it is less effective at this. We all know what happens when the radiator goes in our car.

Eat Those Carbs!

Bring food, particularly carbohydrate, with you on the course. This is a good recommendation regardless of the altitude, but at higher elevations your body will favor carbohydrate as its primary fuel since it requires less oxygen to be metabolized when compared to fat. A good recommendation is to consume about 60 g of carbohydrate every hour. It could be in the form of a sports drink, Clif Shots or Blocks, or even dried fruit. The food should be low in fat and protein and low in fiber, and it should be easily digestible and have a high glycemic index. This will speed up the delivery of carbohydrate to the body. If you are low in energy, you need it quickly, not 2 hours later. Whatever your preference is, try it during training and make sure it works for you.

The bottom line here is to be prepared:

  • Check the weather
  • Wear a hydration pack
  • Store a light jacket
  • Store some food

Sure it might be awkward and cumbersome at first, but not as awkward as sitting on the side of the trail shivering, or cramping, or feeling nauseous cursing Joe DeSena. Get comfortable wearing the pack by wearing it during your workouts. Take it on every run, wear it while practicing the monkey bars or climbing a rope. Belly crawl through mud with it on so you can figure out where to store the hose during the race. If you practice with it, you will not even know it’s there come race day.

For other great race day tips contact your local Spartan SGX coach.

Dr. Jeff Godin is Spartan’s Head of Fitness Education and an Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science, Fitchburg State University.

Put what you have learned to use at Spartan’s Breckenridge Beast. Learn more about Spartan training and find an SGX coach.