Out of Thin Air
The effects of living, training and racing at altitude have been documented for decades. Steve Thomas gets high in China and finds what it’s all about.
Now there’s altitude and then there’s serious altitude! Here in Australia it’s difficult to find anywhere that could really be considered high’ to ride a bike, yet our elite level cyclists have been benefiting from altitude training for over a decade. This means travelling to far flung corners of the world to breath in the chilled lung crunching air, that is believed to make you ride faster. A couple of years ago I found myself in deepest northwest China, for the annual Tour of Qinghai Lake, the highest elite level race on the planet. Here the riders rarely dip below 2000 metres above sea level. That’s way above anything most of us ever get to ride at. And that is just to start with. Some of the stages climb to almost 3500 metres. This is an altitude zone, which is severely deprived of air.
To see the Tour we were in the town of Xining, which is home to one of a number of Chinese sports high altitude training centres, in an area that is doused in snow for much of the year. The teams had come from far and wide for this ever-growing annual tour. Some were using the race as high altitude preparation for more distant goals (like the Danish track team), while others were there to earn their crust and come away with results. Racing and training at altitude are two completely different entities, and precise individual data on the effect of both are still slightly smogged over, but it seems quite clear that if done correctly altitude training can certainly enhance performance levels in most athletes, whereas racing at altitude without the correct approach can seriously damage a rider. It’s generally considered that an athlete needs at least seven to 10 days at altitude to acclimatise enough to consider racing hard. Even then it needs to be monitored, as Heiko Salzweled (Former AIS, British and Danish national track coach), confirms; “It is different with every rider, but seven to 10 days is usually needed to acclimatise. During this time a rider needs to keep his activity intensity low, gradually building up. If that is not monitored then it can cause damage, and efforts in such thin air can put a rider into physical difficulty very fast if he is not acclimatised.”
This lead in period is all well and good for national teams with less racing commitments, but not for professional riders who have a very tight racing schedule, as then Discovery rider Allan Davis explained; “Some of the teams had 10 days or so to get acclimatised, we had a week. When you have a tight professional schedule these extra days are often not possible. "It’s the first time that I’ve been at this kind of altitude and I’m amazed at how tough it is. I feel OK, but it’s really hard to make any kind of an effort without blowing up. The mountains here are really high, there is no easy way around things, I just hope the better acclimatised riders take it easy to start with.” As it turned out Davis had little need to worry – he went on to win five stages in the race; “I struggled a bit on the first day. It was a 30 kilometre climb, and the field split up. I had to be careful not to overcook things. I could really feel the effects after the finish. The effort really burns, far more than at lower levels. Some of the guys on the team had sleeping difficulties and you have to take a lot of care to make yourself drink enough water, dehydration is a problem. But every day I felt better and better, so I am getting used to it.”
Training Versus Racing