Altitude 101 for Ride the Rockies Athletes

Ride the Rockies gives cyclists the opportunity to experience some of the most beautiful routes in the US, yet riding and staying at altitudes between 6,000-12,000 feet above sea level can also be quite challenging. Here are some things you should know about altitude and the steps you can take to perform at your best during Ride the Rockies.

As you go up in elevation, air density diminishes, which means oxygen molecules move farther apart. As a result, when you breathe in there are fewer oxygen molecules in that volume of air compared with the same volume of air at sea level. For most people this difference only becomes noticeable at altitudes above about 5000-6000 feet. What you’ll notice immediately is that your breathing rate and heart rate increase – at rest and any submaximal exercise intensity, including walking up a flight of stairs. This is normal; your body is working a bit harder to get the oxygen you need to working muscles.

Alitude-Body-Option-1Altitude-Body-Option-2A few other things you may notice in your first few days at altitude:

  • A headache: the humidity is generally much lower at higher altitudes, and you will lose more fluid to respiration and sweating. A headache is one of the first ways people new to altitude realize they are getting dehydrated. During your stay – on and off the bike – you will need to consume more water than you do at lower altitudes. If you normally drink caffeine, continue to do so. Alcohol will contribute to dehydration and headaches, so wait until you’re done with RTR before celebrating with a great Colorado micro-brew!
  • Trouble sleeping: Many people struggle to get to sleep or stay asleep at altitude, and anecdotally the incidence of sleep disturbance increases as you go higher. Again, staying hydrated can help, as can a humidifier in your room and avoiding alcohol. If you’re struggling to sleep through the night, be sure to focus on resting when you can during the day and night. An afternoon nap after finishing your ride can be very helpful. Also, make sure you get plenty of sleep before your trip to Colorado.

How altitude affects you on the bike

While athletes often find it amusing to get out of breath walking up a flight of stairs at altitude, they’re not as amused by the impact thinner air has on cycling performance. The key to enjoying long rides at high altitudes is controlling your effort level. If you’re using a power meter you’ll notice that at elevations above 6,000 feet your sustainable climbing power will be at least 10% lower than it was at sea level, increasing to 15-20% lower at elevations above 10,000 feet. Athletes using a heart rate monitor will notice that their heart rates will be elevated, compared to sea level, for any given pace. And if you’re going off of perception, you’ll notice that at altitude it takes a lot more effort to climb at the speed you could sustain at lower elevations.

Adjusting your pacing for altitude

To have great rides throughout the week, you want to avoid digging too deep early on. Slow down and don’t try to match the speed or power output you normally would at lower altitudes. Monitor your breathing. If you’re riding at a conversational pace, that’s great. If your breathing is labored but deep and controlled, then you’re likely at or approaching your maximum sustainable intensity level. This is a good pace for climbs. If your breathing is rapid and uncontrollable, you’re above your lactate threshold and riding on borrowed time. You’re generating a lot of lactate, burning energy very fast, and causing a lot of fatigue. Hitting the gas for fun here and there is fine, but these high-intensity efforts will cost you in the long run.

Fueling at Altitude

Be very conscious to stay both well fed and well hydrated on the bike. Aim for two bottles per hour on the bike, and up to 3 if it’s particularly hot. Use the nutritional strategy that worked for you during training, rather than dramatically changing your habits during RTR. During training, consider separating your nutrition from your hydration, meaning your food should be in your pocket and your hydration in your bottles. This can be helpful for coping with both heat and high altitude, because it enables you to increase fluid intake while managing your caloric intake independently. Aim to replenish 20-30% of your hourly caloric expenditure on the bike. This means consuming 120-180 calories – primarily carbohydrate – per hour if you’re expending about 600 calories per hour. If you’re using a power meter, you can roughly equate your hourly kilojoule workload to your hourly caloric expenditure.

Dressing for Altitude

The old saying here is, “If you don’t like the weather, wait 20 minutes.” Things change fast, and a warm sunny afternoon can become a very cold thunderstorm in a matter of minutes. As you ride through the mountains, temperatures will change dramatically as you climb and then descend. Layers are essential. Carry them and don’t wait to put them on. From a performance and safety perspective, when the temperature drops dramatically on a mountain pass it’s very important to focus on retaining your core temperature. A lightweight rain jacket is a must just about every day in the Rockies.

Training for your week at altitude

There are some very effective ways to train for events at high altitude, but unfortunately they are not practical for most people. Unless you can spend three weeks adapting to altitude or spend time sleeping in an altitude tent, your best option is to arrive at altitude with as much fitness as possible. The elevation will take your performance down a notch, but you can choose the starting point and the more fit you are the better you’ll feel and the faster you’ll recover between rides. To perform at your best, plan to arrive at altitude within about two days of the start of RTR. Arriving much earlier than that may lead to increased fatigue from struggles to keep up with sleep and hydration.

One more thing…

Overall, just relax, smile, and ride your bike. The best thing you can do is listen to your body, it will tell you what it needs. When in doubt, slow down and get something to drink. Talk to the riders around you and the volunteers at the aid stations so they know how you’re feeling and can help if you need it.