A bit of background to kick off. I'm a 40 year old recreational triathlete who lives in Boulder, Colorado (5430 feet) most of the year. I have a background in high altitude mountaineering (10,000 to 20,000 foot peaks); as well as long distance triathlon (past champion Ultraman Hawaii). I host training camps around the world at altitudes ranging from sea-level to 12,000 feet.
This article is based on presentations given at the US Olympic Committee's recent Altitude Symposium as well as my own experiences coaching endurance athletes over the last decade.
Is altitude right for you, or your athletes?
Far more important than your elevation is the quality of training that you achieve at your training camp. My #1 piece of advice would be to go to the location where the training is best.
Endurance athletes that struggle to pace themselves in a group situation, or who rely heavily on their anaerobic fitness, will have a difficult time at altitude. For this reason, I think that mature athletes will tend to do better than young athletes.
You may have heard of "non-responders" to altitude. In my experience, it is far more likely that you are dealing with a slow responder; a poor pacer; or a lack of basic endurance for the workload of the training camp.
If you place yourself in a hole at altitude then you are likely to be staying in that hole until you get home. So if you get sick then best to pack it in, head home and learn for next time.
However... don't give up on altitude! It is often reported that athletes gain strength with each altitude exposure. Learning how to adjust to the stress altitude will make you a better athlete at all elevations.
Why go to altitude?
These tips are courtesy of Bob Bowman, World Champion Swim Coach:
* Aerobic development - specifically the ability to handle greater load with faster recovery after the camp.
* Better training at home as a result of an increased fitness level.
* Competitive event preparation - immediately prior to the peak period for the major competitive event of the year, or Olympic cycle.
How to use altitude?
You'll notice that the three reasons above were laid out A / B / C:
* Type A - base training, a 10-14 day camp focused on endurance
* Type B - early in the Specific Preparation phase, a 21-day camp focused on a mixture of endurance and race specific training, ending with enough time to recover and follow with a sea-level specific preparation block prior to the peak period.
* Type C - late in the Specific Preparation phase, a 21-day camp focused on race specific endurance, ending three weeks prior to competition.
The camps above are shown in order of increasing risk - if you blow it late in Specific Prep then you don't have any time to recover. Use Type A and Type B camps to hone your personal altitude strategy. Even the best athletes take YEARS to learn how to train smart up high.
All of the above camps assume that the athletes are arriving fit, fresh and healthy. As well, blood work to confirm sufficient iron stores should be done no later than six weeks prior to arrival at altitude. Athletes that are iron deficient should consult with their doctors about an appropriate supplementation protocol.
Training Camp Model
The two-week base camp model is straightforward:
* Week One - 3 Day Easy, 1 Day Open, 3 Days Build Volume
* Week Two - 1 Day Open, 3 Days High Volume, 1 Day Open, 2 Taper Out
Defining those terms above for you:
Easy intensity means up to 2 mmol of lactate - depending on the fitness level of your athletes (or yourself) this may or may not feel easy. Certainly early in a training camp environment, this will feel very easy for highly motivated athletes.
An open training day is a low volume, unstructured training day. Whether that is recovery activity, or no activity, will depend on what the athlete likes.
Tapering out is an interesting concept that was highlighted by Bob Bowman. I call this the "travel taper". Because of the stress associated with relocating back home, taper the training load down prior to the end of the camp. This increases the probability that the athlete will absorb the training and be able to resume normal training as soon as possible. With a working athlete, this also reflects the reality that they are going to be overloaded at both the office, and at home, when they return.
The three-week Specific Preparation camps follow similar models. What changes is the main sets, which depend on the athlete's competitive event:
* Week One - 3 Day Easy, 1 Day Open, 3 Days Build Volume
* Week Two - Specific Prep with an Open Day mid-week
* Week Three - Mixed Training (Volume vs Strength vs Speed) for 3 Days, 1 Day Open, Taper Out
Working, and sub-elite, athletes may be tempted to skip the taper in, taper out aspects of the overall camp. While you may be able to freshen/recovery at home for a sea-level camp; the experienced coaches were unanimous in stressing the need to cap efforts at-all-times during the start/finish of the camp.
As a triathlon coach, I would have a bias towards the critical aspect that is missing from most of my athlete's training plans -- cycling volume at, or under, specific race intensity.
Bowman discussed how he lays out the training camp day. He likes the athletes to train 3x per day (works well for triathlon camps). The first session is Easy (<2 mmol) for about an hour; the middle session contains the main event for the day; and the final session is strength oriented. Most his swimmers actually train 4x per day at camp because they do dryland before the final session of the day.
Running the numbers... you can see the swimmers are completing over 50 training sessions in a 21-day camp. So the training camp effect is VERY real. The camp gives most of the benefit but altitude gives a little extra on top.
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