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Planning For A Triathlon At Higher Altitude

Planning For A Triathlon At Higher Altitude

How can you prepare for racing in a triathlon or other multisport endurance event that is at a significantly higher altitude than where you live and train?

While crossing the USA to complete a triathlon in every state, I have raced in western states, where the altitude on the courses was between 4,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. Having trained in areas well below this, between sea level and 1,000 feet, I felt the effect of the altitude on race day.

Related post: Triathlon Across the USA: State #22 – New Mexico

Santa Fe, New Mexico sits at around 7,000 feet elevation. This picture was taken in the city’s art district.

What Happens When We Travel to Higher Altitude

As pictured in the chart below, the most important change is that the amount of oxygen in the air effectively decreases with altitude.

The people at APEX (Altitude Physiology Expeditions) describe it like this:

“At real altitude (in the mountains), the barometric pressure of the atmosphere is much lower than sea-level environments. The result is that oxygen molecules are spread further apart, lowering the oxygen content of each breath.”

While each air molecule contains the same amount of oxygen no matter the elevation, the density of air molecules decreases with altitude. This effectively reduces the oxygen content.

In other words, we draw in fewer air molecules with each breath at high altitude compared to a lower one. Each breath provides less oxygen for our muscles to burn fuel and create the power to move us through the water or along the road.

The result is that for a particular rate of perceived exertion (RPE), we will have less oxygen with which to power our muscles. We aren’t able to swim, bike, or run as fast as we are with more oxygen.

information about effective oxygen content with altitude for a triathlon at higher altitude
Effective Oxygen Content vs. Altitude (Data Sources: Mile High Training, Altitude Dream.com).

How I Selected the Altitude Range For The Graph

The 106° West Triathlon, first (and apparently only) held in 2016, was touted as the ‘Highest Triathlon in the World’ held at an elevation of 9,156 feet (2,791 meters). This race included quarter and half distances of the IRONMAN 140.6.

Let me know in the Comments (below) of any triathlons held at an altitude higher than this one.

Dealing With Altitude: Acclimatization and Adaptation

Two words – acclimatization and adaptation – are used to describe what happens when we travel to a higher altitude.

Acclimatization

Acclimatization refers to the immediate and short term (up to two weeks) changes that occur with altitude.

This process begins immediately upon arriving at the higher altitude. The effect we recognize as breathing harder is called ‘respiratory alkalosis’.

Within a day, the hemoglobin concentration increases. We do not have more red blood cells at this point. However, the liquid component of our blood, the plasma, decreases to normalize the oxygen content in our blood. Lower oxygen content divided by lower plasma volume equals normal oxygen concentration (but not volume) in the blood.

Acclimatization continues over about two to three weeks.

Adaptation

Adaptation describes the longer-term effects, ones that take place over several months.

With extended time at altitude, our body will produce additional red blood cells through the production of the erythropoietin (EPO) hormone. Increasing the number of red blood cells increases the amount of oxygen available to our muscles and other organs.

It takes months, typically eight months according to what I have read, for the body to produce all the additional red blood cells and for adaptation to be complete.

‘Sleep High, Train Low’

There is evidence that the ideal adaptation comes from sleeping at high altitude (between 6,600 and 8,200 feet, which is equal to 2,000 and 2,500 meters) and training at or near sea level.

Sleeping high leads to an increase in hemoglobin. Training low allows for more intense training to increase the key parameter for endurance, VO2max.

How Does Age Affect These Changes?

As seniors in the multi-sport community, we know that age changes the way we train compared with our younger competitors. But, does altitude give us an advantage or create a disadvantage on race day?

Altitude may be one of the few factors that are on our side. According to a report titled Effect of High-Altitude Exposure in the Elderly, age does not seem to be a factor in adjusting to the higher elevation. According to the authors of this study:

“Fortunately, the elderly appear to acclimatize well and after 5 days of acclimatization were physiologically almost indistinguishable from sea level. Thus, aging does not appear to impair the physiological adaptive response to either acute or chronic hypoxia, even in the presence of substantial comorbidity.”

Beautiful mountain view with the caption 'Racing at a higher altitude can mean experiencing some of the most awe-inspiring places on this planet.'
Racing in a triathlon at a higher altitude can mean experiencing some of the most awe-inspiring places on this planet.

What Can You Do To Prepare For A Triathlon At Higher Altitude?

The audience for this post is beginner and intermediate age group athletes. Therefore, I am assuming you will not invest the time and money for training at an altitude camp for several weeks.

However, even if you do, there is no guarantee of increased performance, according to many coaches and scientists. Some people do not adapt. And, the training must be tailored to the individual for it to have significant benefit. (Continue reading for more information on high altitude training.)

Nevertheless, there are ways you can prepare for a triathlon at a higher altitude.

1. Arrive at the race altitude from 2 to 14 days before the race

In a paper titled “Timing of Arrival and Pre-acclimatization Strategies for the Endurance Athlete Competing at Moderate to High Altitudes”, authors Robert F. Chapman, Abigail S. Laymon, and Benjamin D. Levine (see the complete reference in the quotation below) conclude that arriving at the race altitude 14 days before the event is the most ideal. However, they also acknowledge that this amount of time will not be practical for most, given the cost and other responsibilities related to family and work.

Arriving the night before the competition, on the other hand, is a risky strategy. This is especially true if you suffer from any disruption in sleep, a critical component of acclimatization.

While longer is better, 2 to 14 days before the race at the altitude of the event reduces performance declines. This comes from settling into a consistent pattern of quality sleep and reducing the deleterious physiological effects of altitude, such as a reduction in plasma volume.

Performance decrement at altitude appears to decline with each day of altitude residence (up to ~14 days).

Chapman, Robert F., Abigail S. Laymon, and Benjamin D. Levine, “Timing of Arrival and Pre-acclimatization Strategies for the Endurance Athlete Competing at Moderate to High Altitudes”, High Altitude Medicine & Biology, Volume 14, Number 4, 2013, pp. 319-324.
Hungry Horse Reservoir and Dam near Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. By the time I competed in the Montana triathlon, I had stayed above 5,000 feet elevation for over two weeks.

2. Pay extra attention to factors that degrade at altitude

This is in line with the previous point, but worth repeating.

First, stay hydrated. Along with lower effective oxygen, higher altitude also means lower relative humidity of the air. Therefore, fluid loss is greater than in higher humidity regions.

Also, the higher altitude may compromise your sleep. According to this TrainingPeaks article, getting sleep during the initial time at higher altitude can be difficult for some. Some people initially suffer from acute mountain sickness (AMS). Symptoms of AMS include headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue.

Give yourself time to become rested.

3. Pace yourself on race day

According to an article in Triathlete magazine, our VO2max decreases by 7.7 percent for every 1,000 meters of altitude. If you are able, go for a swim, bike, or run before the race to get a sense of how the altitude is affecting your performance. Otherwise, plan to go out slower to avoid having your body put the brakes on unexpectedly.

Remember to ease into the altitude and pace yourself as your body becomes acclimatized.

4. Train to offset performance declines that come with altitude

As we just read, our VO2max decreases with altitude even after several days of acclimatization. However, one strategy for mitigating the decline is to increase your VO2max.

In the last weeks before traveling to the higher altitude, perform harder sessions, like hill repeats, at your typical training altitude. These will simulate the feeling of working harder that will accompany racing at higher altitude.

If you want to learn more about the ins and outs of training at high altitude, I recommend listening to this podcast from Fast Talk Labs.

Final Comments

The human body is amazing in its ability to adapt to different environments. However, the comments on various websites and in academic research papers continually remind me we are all different.

Be sure to discuss with your coach or your doctor any plans to race in a triathlon or other multisport endurance event at higher altitude.

What Has Been Your Experience With Racing At Higher Altitude?

Please share in the Comments below what you have learned about training and racing in a triathlon at higher altitude?

Bright Spots in Triathlon From COVID Restrictions

Bright Spots in Triathlon From COVID Restrictions

I will confess that I have done my share of complaining about changes over the past year. After all, the COVID restrictions turned my triathlon schedule for 2020 upside down.

Of course, that this is one of my biggest complaints means I have nothing serious about which to grumble. This doesn’t stop me from trying, however.

Knowing that I should learn to accept what I cannot change and not complain, I started thinking of the good that has arisen from these changes.

In this post, I have listed the three I see most clearly. You probably have others. Please add them to the comments at the end.

‘Do all things without complaining or arguments.’

Philippians 2:14

Running on Different Surfaces

Running on uneven surfaces is beneficial for strengthening a wider range of muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and core. It is also good for improving balance. According to one source, off-road running lowers the risk of injury compared to road running.

Related post: Better Balance Makes for a Stronger Triathlete

During recent restrictions, some governments required a mask to be worn when within 6 feet of another person not from within your household. In these situations, I found it simpler to run on trails and grassy park areas away from the sidewalks where pedestrians and leisure walkers travel.

Training without a mask may mean avoiding people. The solution? Run where the people are not.

Training More Aerobically

If you are like most of us, you train differently when people are watching compared to when you are alone. At least one study has shown the power of training with others. Group classes and training partners tend to drive us to train harder.

This can be good.

However, if our goal is to train slowly, then training with a group can cause us to train harder than we ought.

On the other hand, when no one is watching, we are comfortable training more slowly, more aerobically. We can also train with lower weights and more repetitions when no one is watching.

Having the freedom to train aerobically and with lighter weights is good because it protects us from injury.

Shunning the Mass Swim Start

Ask most triathletes and they will tell you that one of the least pleasant parts of triathlon is the mass swim start. You can feel as if you are being attacked by other swimmers as each jockey for position. It is only in the triathlon mass start that swimming can become a contact sport.

One way race directors are creating more space between triathletes is through the time-trial swim start. With this type start, swimmers enter the water at 5 to 10-second intervals. This extends space between racers in the swim which carries over to each of the other legs.

Related post: Triathlon Across the USA: State #42 – Arkansas with time trial swim start.

What Are Positive Changes Over the Past Year?

Are there changes to triathlon from COVID restrictions over the past year that you see as positive? I would appreciate hearing your thoughts.

Leave your comments below.

Triathlon in the Year of COVID-19

by Terry VanderWert 1 Comment
Triathlon in the Year of COVID-19

We will remember 2020 in triathlon, as in every corner of life, as the year of COVID-19. By now, we should have enjoyed family reunions, community parades, and the Tokyo Olympics. Furthermore, I should have completed three sprint triathlons in three states.

Instead, over the past weekend I competed in my first triathlon of the season, the Arkansas triathlon in my Triathlon Across the USA quest. It was also the first triathlon of the season for most, if not all, of those with me at this event.

The race had much of the same feel as other sprint triathlons. However, many adjustments had been made by the race organizer, All Sports Productions, through discussions with USA Triathlon, the Arkansas Department of Health, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who manage the area containing the triathlon course.

In the rest of this post, I will share some of the changes forced upon this and other live, in-person triathlons and other multisport events by COVID-19.

Small Differences in Packet Pickup; Some Even Welcome

Not surprising, we were required to wear a mask during packet pickup, at least when unable to maintain spacing of 6 feet or more.

Masked triathletes waiting in line to pickup their race packets on the afternoon before the race.

Health questionnaire

We were also required to submit a completed USA Triathlon health declaration. This declaration (see the picture below) indicated any COVID-19 symptoms we were currently experiencing. It also documented contact we had had with those who had symptons.

covid-19 portion of USA Triathlon Medical COVID-19 questionnaire
Self-declaration portion of the USA Triathlon “Athlete Medical COVID-19 Questionnaire”.

Leave bikes in the transition area overnight

To minimize contact between triathletes on race morning, organizers provided the option of leaving our bikes racked in transition over night. Of course, the area was secured and monitored the entire time.

For me, leaving the bike in the transition area was welcomed. It meant I did not have to get up before daylight and be at the race site when the transition area opened in order to get a preferred spot on the bike rack.

Race Morning – Before the Start

This was the first triathlon I attended without my wife, Joy. In their pre-race email, race organizers wrote:

  • Spectators are encouraged to stay home to assist in meeting guidelines for safe events.
  • Any spectators in attendance will be required to wear masks and will have limited event access.

Joy was more than willing to ‘take one for the team’. She was able to sleep in, getting some much wanted rest. Furthermore, she did not have to wear a mask, an onerous requirement for her given the temperature and humidity. She did, however, tour the gorgeous race venue during and after packet pickup, mostly from within our air conditioned van.

Self body marking

In most triathlons, even those for which the stick-on race numbers (tattoos) are used, volunteers will mark our age on one of our calves using a felt tip marker. To minimize human contact, each athlete was instructed on the location of each body mark.

While the race organizer provided race number tattoos, I goofed up when applying one of them. As a result, I marked my race number on my right shoulder and left hand. I also marked my age on my right calf, even though I later found the age tattoo.

Masks, of course

Racers were handed a white disposable mask upon entering the transition area. Like most racers, I wore this mask until just before beginning the swim leg. When within a few yards of the water, I removed the mask and tossed it into a garbage can.

Swim, Bike, Run Against COVID

There were few significant changes to the most important part of the event – the race.

Time trial start

In past years, the DeGray Lake Triathlon involved a mass, in-water start. To reduce contact between racers, organizers decided to use a ‘time trial’ start.

With a time trial start, often used when the triathlon involves a pool swim, a racer begins every few seconds, typically from 5 to 30 seconds. Today, a swimmer began about every 5 seconds.

The time trial start leads to less interaction between racers not only during the swim but throughout the race. At one point, I heard the race director announce that, from what he observed, they may use a time trial start for all future races, even after the current crisis caused by the virus has passed.

Aid stations

The run included two aid stations at which volunteers (one per station) served water or sports drink. On this day, there were fewer people handing out drinks. Those who did had gloved hands.

After Crossing the Finish Line

After finishing the course, there were a few more differences from previous races. However, most were not significant.

Replacing some volunteers

In previous triathlons, a volunteer will remove the timing chip from the racers ankle once they have crossed the finish line. Today, we removed the timing chip ourselves and handed it to a gloved volunteer.

Also, instead of a volunteer placing the finisher medal around our neck, we collected our medal from a table.

Good food and drink even with COVID-19

Post race food, a hot dog and fruit, was provided in to-go style containers. Beverages were presented by gloved hands.

Wear a mask. Really?

Even after the race and food, we were encouraged to wear a face mask and follow social distancing protocols. The latter was possible, but with the way I was sweating after the race, there was no way I was going to wear a face mask and breathe. One had to give; you can guess which one did.

No awards ceremony

Again, to minimize contact between participants, awards were given individually by a staff member. I did not miss seeing the awards ceremony. However, if I knew more people who were racing, I may have wished it were still held.

Leave Your Questions and Comments Below

Tell us about your experience in a recent triathlon. What changes did you find?

If you haven’t raced this year, are there questions or concerns you have?

#JustKeepMovingForward 

How Will Social Distancing Change Triathlon?

How Will Social Distancing Change Triathlon?
Mass swim starts will be replaced with time trial starts in 2020 triathlons.

Strict social distancing in triathlon is impractical. This is the major reason for two of the three triathlons I had planned for June, those in Arkansas and Oklahoma, being rescheduled for the fall. Meanwhile, organizers of the Kansas triathlon canceled the event for 2020.

What will a triathlon be like in 2020? I asked race directors this question. This is what I learned.

In-Person Racing Will Resume in Phase 3

Guidelines for Opening Up America Again” published by the White House and CDC (Centers for Disease Control) defines a three-phase plan for re-opening the USA. Under this plan, state governors determine the schedule for re-opening their state based on trends in virus cases.

In the three phases, physical distancing requirements gradually reduce from strict (Phase 1) to moderate (Phase 2) to limited (Phase 3).

USA Triathlon has interpreted the Federal government guidelines for the triathlon community in its May 7, 2020 publication titled “Return to Racing Recommendations for Race Directors“.

Having read the USA Triathlon publication, I better appreciate why race directors have canceled or rescheduled the 2020 triathlons.

Even Moderate Physical Distancing Is Not Practical For Triathlon

If you have competed in a triathlon of over 50 people, you probably agree that guaranteeing social distancing (6 feet or roughly 2 meters between individuals) in triathlon would require major changes.

According to Bruce Dunn, owner of All Sports Productions, he and a group of a dozen race directors have been meeting weekly by video to discuss how they could resume putting on races while in Phase 2 as defined by the Federal government.

The group has simulated races considering how to ensure moderate social distancing. Some requirements for a 300-person race that came from the simulations were comical:

  • Time-trial swim start with 5 minutes between individual starts; this would lead to 25 hours to start all 300 swimmers.
  • Transition area that covered 2 acres (0.8 hectares).

Imagine forgetting where you racked your bike in this race. As an alternative, one group member recommended using each racer’s car for the transition space, making the parking lot the transition area.

From these brainstorming sessions, the group concluded that the only practical solution was to wait until Phase 3 to restart triathlons. It avoids extreme measures and/or unacceptably high entry fees.

social distancing in triathlon will mean more space
Will more spacious transition areas be an unexpected benefit of the pandemic?

What Changes In Triathlon Should You Plan For?

Phase 3 is supposed to mean a ‘return to normalcy’. However, there will still be many differences from triathlons of previous years.

First, triathlon organizers must pay attention to physical distancing and sanitation.  USA Triathlon’s “Return to Racing Recommendations for Race Directors” identifies “continuing to adhere to physical distancing and sanitation protocols” as a requirement for races conducted in Phase 3.

According to Jim Rainey, race director for Georgia Multisports, “we plan to make many changes to help ensure your (the triathlete’s) safety.”

Jim explained that this will mean more disinfecting stations throughout areas of high traffic. Race staff will wear masks or shields. In addition, athletes will have their temperatures measured and be asked to wear masks when not racing.

Other changes before, during, and after the race we should expect are:

  • Self body marking.
  • More spacious transition areas to allow for greater separation of individual transition areas, a change probably welcomed by most racers.
  • Time-trial (one person at a time at a fixed interval) starts rather than mass or wave starts for the swim.
  • Fewer “pinch points” on the bike course where cyclists must ride close to each other.
  • More loop, rather than out-and-back, run courses.
  • Self-service aid stations on the run course.
  • Fewer goodies such as free samples in the swag bag.
  • Changes to the awards ceremony.
  • Fewer spectators.

Doing a triathlon in this new era will definitely be different!

Will You Race in 2020?

Comment below to let us know about your plans to race in one or more triathlons during 2020? Which race(s)? What are your concerns? Are there changes you welcome?

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