In Preparation:  High Altitude Training

In Preparation High Altitude Training

June 24, 2011 11:30am

For this addition of Nike In Preparation, we sat down with Charles Dao, founder of iCON Sports Performance and Wellness Alliance, who trains the 2011 West coast SX Lites Champion, Broc Tickle as well as Justin Brayton, Cole Seely, fmx/offroad truck racer Jeremy Stenberg, and rally/nascar driver Brian Deegan. Charles’ training facility in Murrieta, CA, is one of the only centers that offers a comprehensive Sports Medicine program that covers injury prevention, performance testing, strength and conditioning, and rehabilitation all under one convenient roof. His team of athletes has made a drastic impact on the action sports industry and continues to elevate the standards of racing so we decided to check in with his crew to see how they’re preparing for this weekend's outdoor national in Colorado.

Racer X: Charles, how does racing at a higher elevation affect a rider physiologically?
Charles Dao: One of the most exciting aspects of being a pro motocross rider is the opportunity to travel and embrace the tracks that offer the most grueling conditions that are ever changing and always challenging. Regardless of what one may say, the playing field is even across the map and only suits the rider who is most adaptable to change.

In this case, Colorado presents a drastic change due to its high altitude. Racing at high elevation can place significant physiological demands on both the cardiovascular and pulmonary system, but understanding the adaptation process can make for a less taxing transition. The first thing a rider may notice is the difference in higher lung activity, in which both the resting and exercising heart rate increase rapidly due to the reduction of oxygen taken per breath. The faster breathing rate changes the rider's acid-base balance and this takes a little longer to correct. Both of these increase an individual's sensation of Dyspnea (shortness of breath) and fatigue, increasing an immediate negative response to limit the chances of optimal performance.

Thunder Valley's elevation could challenge some riders.
Photo: Simon Cudby

How long does it take to acclimate to race at these conditions?
In general, the higher the altitude the longer it takes to adapt. The hematocrit level (the percentage of blood volume that is occupied by red blood cells) begins to increase within 24 to 48 hours as a result of a reduction in plasma volume. It typically takes three weeks for a person's body to become acclimated to the demanding conditions. And once the body has sustained itself and settled into its new environment, leaving to go back to sea level takes approximately two weeks before the physiological adaptations begin to reverse.

In regard to this weekend in Colorado, riders don’t have that luxury to detach three weeks of their lives on command. They have to battle the constant changes that each race presents every weekend traveling state to state. The only other option that is more realistic and feasible is arriving within one day before race day. By doing so, most riders can expect to finish both motos before detrimental symptoms begin to set in after that 24 to 48-hour window.

What is the best way to train for races at a higher altitude?
Most recent evidence suggests that a "Train-Low, Sleep High" approach may offer some advantages. This popular method entails training at low altitude to push your anaerobic threshold, but sleeping is done at high altitude so that the hypoxic stress increases red cell mass possibly giving riders the "best of both worlds." Unfortunately for motocross, this option isn’t entirely practical and damn near impossible to construct if you’re a full time racer. So most of your work is focused on deep breathing, getting your base cardio dialed through long road rides, and mixing it up with trail runs and swimming. But if you’re fortunate enough to live in a situation that presents this option to train, take advantage of it while you can and hopefully your riding skills coincide to give you a great performance this weekend.

Are there any supplements or training methods to assist in getting properly prepared for these elevated conditions?
Racing at higher elevations can negatively impact a rider’s hydration characteristics, nutrition requirements, and physical performance in more ways imaginable to the common layman. There are a few options that are available compiled from popular methods that haven’t been fully studied and have received mixed reviews to enhance performance, but might offer an advantage for some riders less experienced.

  1. Diet - A high carb, low sodium diet is highly suggested to allow for better adaptation. You may experience a decline in appetite, resulting in loss of muscle mass if regular fuel consumption isn’t sustained. Iron supplements will facilitate adaptation in order to produce more red blood cells.
  2. Fluids - Because mountain air is cool and dry you can lose a lot of water, make sure you maintain adequate hydration supported with plenty of electrolytes. Acli-Mate Mountain Sport Drink claims to aid in the prevention of altitude sickness and assist athletes in maximizing performance at elevation. I have no opinion of this product personally but agree nevertheless of the importance of increasing a rider's hydration levels.
  3. Hypobaric Chambers- These chambers can progressively lower oxygen levels by replacing the chamber with nitrogen, which simulate a hypobaric environment. Athletes can rest or sleep in these chambers regularly to get the physiological benefits without having to live in high elevation areas. However the cost, discomfort, and time associated with this approach may not be acceptable or feasible for most riders.
  4. Training Mask- Incorporating the same methodology of utilizing a “snorkel mask” as a means to consume distressed oxygen through a tiny pipe in attempts to facilitate an increase in red blood cells, this company claims that the Training Mask will mimic the same physiological traits as participating in competition held in high altitude. Once again, I haven’t had the pleasure to test out this product but thought it was interesting none the less.
Charles Dao trains a number of riders including TLD's Cole Seely.
Photo: Simon Cudby
What are your riders doing to optimize their performance in prep for this weekend in Colorado?
Other than having my team of riders washing down jars of Iron supplements with some Elevation Enhancement Drink, doing motos with a full blown Snorkel get up, and immediately entering their Aluminum Can Chamber- we tend to stick to the good old fashion method of sustaining a strong cardio base throughout the week as well as incorporating at least one day of High Intensity Interval Training. Having a balanced diet with proper hydration replenishment is essential as well. There are so many gimmicks out there to sway riders in desperation to believe that their overall race results will drastically change due to some hokey program and secret horse pills found only in the jungles of Vietnam. At the end of the day, it boils down to how much quality saddle time you put in on the bike, having a well planned training regiment in place, and how hard you drive yourself psychologically so that you’re mentally conditioned more than the rider next to you. Don’t take my word for it, ask Bob Hannah, the epitome of dedication and perseverance. There’s always room for more hard work to prepare for a race. We’ve done everything properly to transition from winning the West Coast Lites SX title to now getting a rhythm going in the outdoors. It is very exciting and I look forward to seeing my guys do well this weekend in the high altitude of Colorado!