Racing at Altitude

Donner Pass

This has been an interesting year with mountain bike, elite road, and masters road national championships being held at altitude.  Throw in races like Ironman Tahoe, Ironman Boulder, Leadville 100, lots of  XC mountain bike races, and events like the Death Ride and it is becoming very common for athletes to do at least one event a year at higher elevations.  For those of us living at lower elevations, racing at higher elevation events can be very challenging.  Not only do we see a decrease in aerobic capacity at elevation but pacing, nutrition, and hydration are all more complex at elevation.  Estimating how altitude will affect you as an athlete as well as the metabolic changes are very important in an athlete’s race preparation.

Monitor Pass

East Side of Monitor Pass

Most of the research done on the effect of altitude in athletes was conducted before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (approx. elevation of 7400ft).  The consensus from the studies concluded that an athlete loses 2% of VO2 for 1000ft above the first 1000ft.  So what does that mean to actual performance?  Bassett et. al. (1999) did a comparative analysis of cycling world hour records to put those loses of aerobic capacity into power terms for both acclimated and unacclimated athletes.

Bassett formula For acclimated athletes, in % of zero elevation power:

y = -1.12x^2 – 1.90x + 99.9 (R^2 = 0.973) where x=elevation in km

Instead of having to do all that math, here is an easy to read chart on the results from the Bassett study:

Effects of Elevation

To put these into a real life example, if you were traveling to Truckee CA for Elite Road Nationals (~6000ft) a day before your event you would expect to experience a 11.1% drop in aerobic performance.  However, if you were able to spend extra time at elevation and become acclimated your aerobic performance would only drop 7.3%.  For an athlete with a sea level of threshold of 300 watts that is an almost 12 watt difference.  While that may not seem like a lot, it can be huge when trying to make that breakaway stick or going up that final climb at the end of a long hot race.

Donner Pass

Donner Pass

The big question for a lot of athlete is how long does it take to acclimate?  This where things become a little fuzzy.  Several studies have been done on acclimatization all showing a pretty wide variance of individual responses.  What we can conclude from these studies is that most athletes will need at least 2 weeks of altitude exposure and a maximum of 4 weeks to become complete adapted.  This is assuming adequate iron and B vitamin stores.  If either of those are low than adaptation to altitude will be slower and potentially incomplete.  If you are targeting an event at elevation it may be useful to get a blood test done to ensure you have adequate serum ferritin, folate, and B12 levels.

Since most athletes can’t afford to spend up to a month at altitude before an event, we are seeing more and more athletes getting altitude tents to help with acclimatization.  Altitude tents are essentially tents that go over an athlete’s bed and a device that lowers the oxygen content to create a hypoxic environment.  This stimulates the lower oxygen absorption rate experienced at altitude and can help in the adaptation process, however in my experience the total time to be maximal adaptation from an altitude tent is about double the time needed at constant altitude exposure.  Also, having optimal levels of iron and B vitamins is crucial in making this adaptation since the altitude tents primarily only alter hematological levels and don’t address the other physiological adaptations to altitude (breathing rates, reduced blood volumes, etc.).  It is also because of this that we see slightly lower acclimatization rates from altitude tent use than full altitude exposure.

Altitude Tent

Altitude Tent

One important factor to keep in mind while spending time at altitude is that while your aerobic system is improving to the increased demands at altitude, muscular power will decrease due to the reduced workload.  Essentially power, not heart rate, will be limited at altitude compared to what is possible at lower elevations and provide less stress to the muscles.  Over time that can result in less anaerobic or sprint power.  That is very important to take into consideration in that final preparation.  If your event requires a lot of anaerobic power it may be important to include some trips to lower elevations to work on more powerful shorter duration efforts to maintain that ability.

Altitude not only affects aerobic capacity, it also can have a large affect on your fueling and hydration plan.  For longer events like Ironman races, maximal VO2 is almost never a limiter.  Instead we see metabolic fitness, how quickly and for how long can your body create energy, becomes a bigger limiter in athletic performance.  There has only been a few studies on how metabolism is affected by altitude, but what has been done shows a shift to higher carbohydrate metabolism for any given work rate.  This makes sense since relative intensity goes up as elevation increases at any given work rate.

The actual increase in carbohydrates varied by over 8 percent, but typical results showed an average 20% more carbohydrate utilization at 7500ft compared to 2500ft.  The larger and more fit the athlete resulted in a bigger metabolic effect on athletes.  Smaller, less fit athletes are less metabolically affected.  Just as with aerobic function, becoming acclimatized to the higher altitudes will also affect the metabolic shift.

This metabolic shift in carbohydrate oxidation is very important for 70.3 and Ironman athletes.  Just as it is important to adjust a long course athlete’s pacing strategy to account for reduced aerobic capacity, it may also be important to reduce intensity to spare carbohydrate stores.  Beyond acclimatizing to the higher elevation, working on becoming more metabolically efficient may also have a huge impact on performance.  Through a combination of diet manipulation and specific training it is possible for athletes to increase the amount of fat they burn at any given intensity.  This is a pretty complex topic and something I will cover in a separate article in the near future.

Road Nationals finish at 6700ft

Road Nationals finish at 6700ft

Hydration also becomes a bit more difficult at altitude since the absolute humidity decreases as you go up in elevation.  It isn’t uncommon to see absolute humidity in the mid to low 30% range which would increase fluid loss through respiration and may increase sweat rate.  One of the biggest preventable issues I see with athletes competing and training at altitude is dehydration.  Nothing will slow you down faster than becoming dehydrated and it is a huge risk at higher elevations.  It isn’t uncommon for endurance athletes to go through 20 – 32 ounces of fluid an hour at altitude. That is 2 big bike bottles for every hour of exercise!  With that much fluid it is important to pay attention to electrolyte content as well to avoid becoming hyponatremic.  I would recommend using a product like Salt Stick tabs, or Skratch Hyper Hydration to maintain sodium levels with the increase fluid intake.  It is also important that you maintain hydration outside of your sport as well.  I recommend that all athletes start the day with 16oz of water with electrolytes (salt stick tabs, Nuun, 1/4tsp good quality sea salt, or trace minerals) and never go anywhere without a water bottle when at elevation.

Since there is quite a bit of individual variance in responses to altitude it is important for athletes to work out their individualized plan.  Of course if you have the time spending 2 – 4 weeks at your favorite mountain resort is by far the best option, just not very practical for most of us.  Another useful strategy is to minimize altitude exposure leading up to an event and going up as late as possible before an event.  While this doesn’t help to become physiologically adapted, it does limit some of the short-term negative effects of altitude.  It is common to see performance decline rather rapidly the first few days at elevation, then it slowly starts to come back up as the body becomes adapted.  Going up the day before or day of an event can limit the initial decline in performance and be a better plan than going up 2 – 4 days before an event.

However you approach events at altitude, make sure you make a plan and address the unique demands of these events.  Some of my best racing experiences have occurred over 5000ft and I wouldn’t of enjoyed them as much without addressing the unique demands of performing at altitude.  Maybe it is time for you to join the athletic mile high club…

Leadville 100

Leadville 100

Performance Supplements for Endurance Athletes

A few days ago I wrote an article on core supplements that athletes, and really anyone living a stressful lifestyle, should take to optimize performance.  If you haven’t read that yet, go back and do it now as that a clean diet, then the core supplements make the foundation of performance before anything below matters.   If you haven’t spent some time cleaning up your diet then you should stop reading this and get to work on optimizing your nutrition for your lifestyle.  There are a lot of resources and nutrition coaches available that can help you if you don’t know where to start.

For this article I wanted to focus on supplements that actually have studies showing an ergogenic effect and is legal for competing athletes.  If you have ever walked into your local GNC or Vitamin Shoppe you have noticed that there are literally thousands of products marketed to athletes.  Most don’t have any supporting science, are often cross contaminated, and not accurately labeled.  Finding clean, high quality supplements is often difficult in the packed supplement market.  As I stated in the previous article, I highly recommend getting NSF certified products to make sure you are getting what you think you are getting at the reported dosage levels.  There are a lot of shady supplement companies and it is best to seek out higher quality products even if they cost a bit more.  If you are a competing athlete you should also be familiar with the USADA drug resource tool to make sure whatever you are taking is legal both in and out of competition.

Global DRO

OK, so what really works?  It is a pretty short list.  Everything on this has been shown in at least one independent study to have a positive effect on athletic performance.  It is important to realize that just because something works in a study, doesn’t mean it is going to be ideal for you. Everyone needs to experiment away from competition to see what really works for them.  N=1 is what really matters.

  • Caffeine- Who doesn’t appreciate that pre-race espresso or mega venti americano supreme.  Caffeine does more than just act as stimulant to get you pumped on the start line.  Caffeine has been shown to free up fatty acids for fuel, decrease rate of perceived exertion, decreases insulin sensitivity, increase aerobic and anaerobic capacity, and increase power output in cyclists and weight lifters.  Genetically there are fast and slow metabolizers of caffeine.  Fast metabolizers will process and filter out the caffeine faster.  They also get a bigger health benefit from caffeine than slow metabolizers.  Fast metabolizers often need a slightly larger dose to have a beneficial effect.  Slow metabolisers may need a relatively small dose or avoid caffeine altogether.  For them the  caffeine stays in the system too long and the negatives (primarily higher blood pressure and anxiety) start to outweigh the positives.  Dialing in your ideal dose for caffeine is something you would want to do well before any major competitions.  Lower is often better with caffeine as higher doses can be very dangerous.   If you have any cardiovascular issues you should ask a doctor before using. C
  • Sodium Bicarbonate- Yep, this is baking soda.  You probably won’t find this at your local GNC because it is just too cheap.  $1.50 will get you enough sodium bicarbonate to for an entire year!  Sodium Bicarbonate is a buffering agent against acidity in the human body.  There are two ways to take Sodium Bicarbonate, you can take acutely before competition or load in the days prior to major competition.  The acute method is easier but has slightly lower effects. To do this you would take 200/300mg/Kg of body weight taken 45 – 90 minutes before exercise.  To load you would take 500mg/kg of body weight divided into 3 – 5 doses in the 4 days prior to competition.  It isn’t needed to take on the day of competition.  Studies have shown that high responders to sodium bicarbonate loading can see an advantage of up to 8%.  That is huge!  Of course it doesn’t come with some down side.  Baking soda can cause some serious intestinal distress (i.e. disaster pants).  You can also use this a few times a year before the body learns how to create more acid to balance out the basic effects of the sodium bicarbonate.  Try this outside of competition first and then limit yourself to using for only a few big races a year.  It is important to note that sodium bicarbonate is 27% sodium and should be used with caution if you are hypertensive sodium sensitive.
  • Arginine/L-Citruline/Beet Juice- There has been a lot written on the ergogenic effects of beet juice so I won’t beet (get it…) this one to death.  Beet juice has a vasodilator effect that allows the circulatory system to function better increasing aerobic function.  What a lot of people don’t know is that you can get the same effects from the amino acid Arginine, or its precursor L-Citruline, without the panic of seeing pink pee in the morning after a big glass of beet juice.  Ideal doses for an ergogenic effect are in the 5 – 6g range for most athletes.  Beet Juice
  • Creatine- This is one of the most studied substances ever.  A quick search on PubMed results in over 51000 studies.  Most people view creatine as a “strength training” supplement since it help support the phosphocreatine system and quick release of energy but we are starting to see more studies showing its potential to increase performance in endurance sports.  Most recently we have seen studies showing creatine increasing muscle endurance, slightly increasing VO2, increasing testosterone release, and increasing anaerobic work capacity in endurance sports.  Creatine has also been shown to be very safe and early reports of kidney, liver, and cramping issues have been unfounded.  Although there is a downside for endurance athletes, creatine does lead to some water retention and weight gain.  This varies by the athlete but in my experience 1 – 3 pounds is pretty normal.  That may be a factor if your key event has a lot of climbing and body weight is an important issue.  Ideal dosage for endurance athletes using creatine is a week at 5g a day to load, then 2g per day to maintain levels.  Creatine also has impressive synergistic effects with sodium bicarbonate and may be ideal to be taken together.

None of these supplements are all the revolutionary and I think that is an important thing to realize.  Don’t fall for the new wonder supplement with crazy claims of athletic gains, almost all of those don’t pan out in independent studies. Also note that none of these say anything about weight loss.  I have yet to see a supplement that can actually help with weight loss beyond appetite control.  Save yourself some money and just go buy some high fiber vegetables to control your hunger.

To help evaluate supplements I would look to sites like, ask coach and nutrition experts, and if you are a competing athlete make sure to check the USADA drug reference online.  That is your responsibility if you are competing!


Core Supplements for Athletes

It doesn't really work this way...

There are a few questions I get asked a lot from athletes: What is a good pre-race meal? What is an ideal warm-up?  Do my socks have to match my kit every ride? But more than anything I get asked about supplements.  Athletes are bombarded by ads from sports nutrition companies telling them that they can go faster, recover quicker, and be healthier with a little pill.  Most of products are not supported by independent studies or only contain trace amounts of nutrients.  There are some supplements I recommend for athletes, and really most people, but before we get into that I think there are few important points about supplements we need to go over first.

Vegetable Pill

It doesn’t really work this way…

The main thing to remember with supplements is that they should be supplementing an already healthy diet.  It doesn’t matter what you take if you are eating nothing but candy and fast food.  You can’t fill those nutritional gaps or balance out your diet with a pill.  Eat some friggin veggies before you start looking to supplements.

NSF Logo

If you are an athlete competing in any Olympic sport, even at the amateur level, you need to only purchase NSF (National Sports Federation) certified supplements.  That certification states that any product only contains what it says on the label and is not banned by the World Anti Doping Agency.  All athletes are responsible for everything that goes into their body and the NSF certification is the best way to know that you are actually taking what you think you are taking.  Even if you aren’t a competing athlete, you may still want to look for the little NSF logo on your supplements to make sure you are getting higher quality products.

Here are my core suggestions for athletes, fast paced or stressful lifestyles, or for anyone wanting to maximize their health and fill common nutritional deficiencies:

  • A good, food based, multi-vitamin.  This is a good insurance policy to make sure you don’t have any big nutritional holes in your diet.  My main suggestion here is the EXOS Fuel Multi-Vitamin Elite.  This is a higher potency vitamin that is separated into a day and night dose so that nutrients are not competing for absorbency, and calming minerals like magnesium are prioritized in the evening.
  • Fish oil.  I have written about fish oil in the past, but this needs to be repeated.  In general terms, omega-3 fats found in processed foods and in vegetable oils are inflammatory.  Omega-3 fats primarily found in fatty fish and flax-seed are anti-inflammatory.  Most people eat way too many omega-6 fats which need to be balanced out with omega-3s.  That is where a good quality fish oil can help.  I would recommend Nordic Natural’s Triglyceride based fish oils, or the EXOS Omega-3 fish oils.Fish Oil
  • Curcumin.  Many of the metabolic disorders we are seeing on the rise are being connected to high levels of inflammation.  Just as the omega-3 fats help control inflammation, so does curcumin.  Curcumin, an antioxidant derived from turmeric, has been shown to help maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response while also supporting joint, liver, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular function.  Phenocane and EXOS Fuel’s Curcumin supplement are my two recommendations here.
  • Magnesium.  Most athletes and people with demanding lifestyles are magnesium deficient.  Recent studies have shown that only 30% of all americans get adequate amounts of magnesium.  One of the benefits of supplementing with magnesium is better sleep which is why I would recommend only supplementing with magnesium in the evening.  Specifically I would recommend CALM Brand Magnesium before bed.
  • Vitamin D.  Just like Magnesium, vitamin D deficiency is pretty rampant in today’s society.  I could write an entire article on vitamin D and the biological processes it is needed for but for simplicity, vitamin D is crucial for recovery and performance.  Since vitamin D is fat soluble and can become toxic with over supplementation, this is one that I would ideally recommend getting some lab work done first to see where your vitamin D levels are currently.  If they are low then supplementing with a good quality Vitamin D3 balanced with Vitamin K2 would be a very good idea.  There are lots of good quality D3 supplements on the market now.  Just make sure it is D3, which is the biologically active form of vitamin D.  I take EXOS Fuel’s Vitamin D3 just from simplicity in ordering everything from the same source.  EXOS products are also made by Thorne Research which creates pharmaceutical grade supplements and is the industry leader when it comes to quality and purity.

These are the big hitters in the supplement world that I feel makes the biggest impact in most people and athletes.  Of course there are a lot of other products that may be useful for your unique physiology but I would suggest getting some basic blood work done first to see where you might be deficient and supplementing accordingly.  In the future, I will go through the research on supplements that may directly help performance as well.  _DSC2370.ARW


Cold Thermogenesis for Endurance Athletes

In the last article I wrote I talked briefly about the benefits of cold exposure for endurance athletes.  Cold exposure, ice baths, and cold showers have all been the rage lately on the inter-webs for weight loss, which is definitely a benefit to endurance athletes, but there are other benefits that can be really useful for endurance athletes as well.

Before we dig deeper and go full geek on cold thermogenesis (you can skip to the bottom if you want to miss the geekness), I think it is important to state that this isn’t new.  Back in 2006 when the US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs built a dedicated recovery center for the 400+ resident athletes at their facility they included not only a dry sauna (which is ridiculously hot) but “ice pools” kept at approximately 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  Athletes had differing protocols using the two extremes, but all of them included at least 15 minutes spent in the ice pool.  Many athletes would start in the dry sauna to allow blood to move to the skin surface to help the body stay cool in the hot environment, then jump in the ice pool to cause rapid cooling of body temperature.  Good times…

US Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs

Weight Loss

Cold exposure for weight loss has been a well-studied topic for sometime now.  A quick search on pubmed results for cold thermogenesis results in over 2000 studies and while not all of them have found positive benefits, a majority of them have shown cold exposure to be beneficial in elevating metabolic rate and burning extra calories.  The primary theory behind weight loss from cold exposure is that cold activates brown adipose tissue (primarily found around your collar bones, sternum, and neck) to burn white adipose fat to keep the bodies core temperature from dropping.  What isn’t often talked about with cold exposure is that muscles also have a similar activation when exposed to cold called mitochondrial decoupling that up-regulates metabolism and heat production.

While the BAT connection to weight loss has been well established, the adinopectin story has rarely been told.  Adinopectin is a hormone that can be activated by cold that causes fat to be broken down and shuttles glucose into muscles.  This not only elevates metabolism but it also has an anabolic response in the muscle which can aid in recovery post exercise.   While they have shown causation, there is a correlation between low adinopectin levels and diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

Immune Function

Sorry your mom had it wrong, going out in the cold can actually help immune system function.  Cold can stimulate norepinephrine due to it sympathetic nervous system response, which in turn activates leukocytosis and granulocytosis (natural immune system killer cells) which can improve immune function.  That can be especially helpful when done post endurance exercise where we typically see an immune system suppression for 1 – 2 hours prior longer workouts.

Hormone Response

While this is a relatively new branch of study with cold exposure, there does seem to an up-regulation of hormone receptor affinity for hormone binding.  Essentially, this means your normal hormone release is more effective resulting in less of the hormone needed for effective change.  This may be very helpful in cases where hormone receptors become desensitized from chronic stress.  There is current research being done on cold exposure with insulin resistance that may help explain this mechanism better, but until science catches up, anecdotally we are seeing people being able to better handle stress after cold exposure and using cold to reset leptin sensitivity.

So What is the Actionable Information from all this geek speak?

Ice Bath

Moderate cold exposure (15 min ice baths) can be extremely beneficial to help athletes recover, handle stress better, and help control body weight.  If ice baths are not possible in your schedule, then cold showers can also be used pretty effectively.  Ray Cronise (NASA scientist who has done a lot of research on the benefits of cold thermogenesis) has even developed a quick cold shower protocol to make the process a bit quicker.  Essentially it is 5 minutes of a warm shower followed by 20 seconds of cold, 10 seconds of warm repeated for 10 times.  That is a total of 5 minutes added to your normal shower time.  The frequency of the cold exposure would vary depending on your goals but if you are using this to help with recovery I would suggest not using it more than a few times a week.  You want the hormetic response of training to drive adaptation and techniques that may improve recovery may lessen your adaptation to training in the long-term.

If weight loss is your goal, then a few hours of low-grade cooling (fat burner vest, cold air exposure) will be more beneficial than short-term ice baths although both can be used in conjunction to increase the benefits.

Force Multiplier?

A force multiplier is when two items are combined to create a greater sum than their parts.  Cold thermogenesis in a fat adapted athlete is an example of a force multiplier.  We are starting to see some pretty amazing results in those athletes that have made the effort to become fat adapted and are using cold exposure.  I will dig deeper into the process of becoming fat adapted in the next article and take your training and health to another level!