Sea to Summit: Top 5 Lessons for Flatlanders Racing at Altitude

For those living close to sea level and wanting to race at altitude, there are many struggles that you could possibly face that those living at altitude will not. The physiological changes that they have developed put them at a far greater advantage than those coming from sea level. Here are a few tips that can help flatlanders (those not living in the mountains or close to sea level) be more successful racing at altitude.

Timing is Everything:

If you are not coming from altitude then timing is key to the success of your race. When I say altitude this is typically above 8,000 feet. The lack of adaptations within the body for those not used to spending time at this altitude can drastically hinder performance. Typically, those racing below 8,000 feet are not drastically affected. Studies and experience show the following strategies to be the most helpful:

  • Arrive Early:

Studies have shown that arriving 3 weeks or more at the elevation you are going to race and staying there will allow for the minimal sufficient time for your body to adapt for better performance. It has been my experience that is not always true for everyone. Many locals that I have spoken with said that they did not start to see the same performance levels in their training at attitude that they did at sea level until 6-7 months after living at altitude.

  • Arrive Late:

This is the strategy that I have seen the most success with and that I have seen most racers use. Most racers do not have a month or more of free time where they can live away from their daily life making option 1 difficult. This option allows you to basically arrive, race, and be done before your body ever knows what hit it. It’s a kind of way to cheat your bodies physiology. If you choose this option then I would recommend arriving 12-24 hours before racing.

Take it Easy When You Arrive:

After arriving at altitude you should take it easy. Because you are putting greater stress on your body it needs time to adapt. If arriving early, slowly build up in physical activity so that your body has time to periodize. If arriving late, then I would recommend resting or just taking short leisurely walks.

Stay on top of Hydration:

Altitude suppresses both the desire to eat and drink. Therefore, it is important to stay on top of your hydration so that the blood is able to transport red blood cells more readily for oxygen transport . The Institute For Altitude Medicine recommends an extra liter to liter and a half of water per day. A good gauge is the color of your urine. Light yellow to clear indicates adequate hydration. Dark yellow or orange indicates dehydration. It is important to note that while drinking more fluids athletes need to consume adequate electrolytes also in order not to go into hyponatremia.

Lay Off the Alcohol:

I can tell you from personal experience that mixing alcohol and high levels of physical activity at high altitude will not help performance. Several years ago while attending a high altitude training camp I got altitude sickness and had to leave the camp and descend so that symptoms could reside. I believe it was in large part to alcohol consumption in the evenings after training. Studies have shown that alcohol is a respiratory depressant, meaning it slows the body’s ability to adapt to altitude. Laying off alcohol and heavy physical activities for the first several days to a week after arriving at altitude will greatly enhance your body’s ability to adapt.

Relish the Experience:

Relishing in the experience and having the desire to run in the mountains can greatly enhance performance. Speaking from experience there have been races where I was perfectly trained but lacked desire. Subsequently, I failed miserably. There have also been races where I have been under trained but wanted it so badly that I succeeded in spite of the odds. Having the desire and right mind set can give those racing a mental advantage over external factors that can make all the difference.

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