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Can I train for altitude without leaving the UK?

Les Deux Alpes mountains
Michael Donlevy
20 Oct 2020

Get ready for that high mountain ride abroad

There’s a simple answer to this: yes, you can. But first you need to understand why you might need to and how you should go about it.

Your physiology changes at altitude, especially when you exercise. It’s often thought there’s less oxygen, but actually it’s the change in air pressure that affects you.

Because cycling is largely aerobic, the delivery of oxygen is crucial to performance in terms of your maximum power output. Small changes can occur at quite low altitude, and for many people performance will start to decrease from about 500m.

In terms of actual training there isn’t a whole lot you can do to replicate altitude, because nearly everyone will face a decline in performance. But the less fit you are, the more altitude is likely to affect you, so if you know you’re going to ride at altitude, the simple answer is to get as fit as you possibly can.  

Your functional threshold power – FTP, the maximum average power you can maintain for an hour – is key. You can build that in a number of ways, from long (minimum one hour) medium-intensity endurance sessions to 15-minute time-trial intervals.

You should also aim to increase your VO2 max – the measure of your body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise – by doing short, intense efforts of around four minutes.

You can’t actually simulate riding at altitude in the UK, since the highest roads in this country are only about 500m above sea level. These include some of the longer passes in Derbyshire such as the Cat & Fiddle or Snake Pass, the Gospel Pass in Wales and some in Scotland.

Unlike some of the UK’s steeper ascents these are all longish climbs so they are useful for learning how to pace yourself. Many people start too fast and then blow up.

Another potential issue abroad is altitude sickness, but not everyone suffers from it and it only really strikes at above 3,000m. If you’re planning to go that high you should build up to it first by steadily increasing your altitude.

Pack some energy products, drink plenty and avoid alcohol, because you may well burn through your glycogen stores and dehydrate at a faster rate.

There are other, more specific things you can do. Hypobaric chambers allow you to train in a low oxygen environment to simulate the effects of altitude.

This may be useful to understand how your body performs and may also help change some physiological markers, but it’s expensive.

Then there are altitude tents, where you sleep in a low-oxygen environment, and modern scientific thinking is that the best way to train for altitude is to sleep high (at high altitude) and to train low (at sea level). Training at altitude means you either lose more power or require more rest.

Training at sea level and sleeping in an oxygen tent allows you to maintain your normal level of training while obtaining the physiological adaptations that occur, mainly in the blood, at altitude. Again, though, these can be pricy – upwards of £300 a month – and it’s important to note that this doesn’t work for everyone. Some people are non-responders.

The level of your commitment to this sort of thing depends on how serious your high-altitude ride is, or how much money you have to burn. If you’re a sponsored athlete preparing for a long-distance race, it’s probably worth the expense and effort.

If you’re not, it’s worth exhausting all of the other avenues first: optimising your engine via coaching, optimising man and machine via aerodynamics, and ensuring you get the best possible nutrition.

The expert: Ric Stern is a road racer, sports scientist and cycling and triathlon coach. For the past two years he’s qualified for the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, and has coached elite riders, Paralympians and beginners. Visit cyclecoach.com.

Illustration: Will Haywood

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