The Epic Series’ European races – the Swiss Epic, in Graubünden, and the Andorra MTB Classic-Pyrenees – both take place at altitude. While that may be fine for the local mountain goats, for riders travelling to the Alps or the Pyrenees from oxygen rich lower elevations, the prospect is a daunting one. To help you acclimatise and perform at altitude we spoke to sport scientist Dr Mike Posthumus and professional mountain biker Samara Sheppard.
The prospect of climbing to over 2 000 metres above sea level, repeatedly, during a stage race is a daunting one. Especially if you reside at much lower elevations. Acclimatisation is the prescribed solution, but the Swiss Epic, in Graubünden, and the Andorra MTB Classic-Pyrenees are not a push for the summit of Mount Everest. As non-professional athletes setting up a base camp in the mountains, slowly getting used to the thin air, is not a viable option.
We turned to science and experience, rather. Harnessing the sport science knowledge and the practical know-how of Dr Mike Posthumus and Samara Sheppard. Dr Posthumus is a medical doctor, renowned sports scientist and coach of a number of elite mountain bikers. Sheppard is a multiple-New Zealand national champion and long-time UCI World Cup campaigner, in 2019 she finished third in the Swiss Epic.
“Of course, not everyone has the luxury of altitude training camps, which is a sure way to enhance your performance at altitude” Dr Posthumus allowed. “It has been well reported that the sleep-high, train-low approach is an established protocol for enhancing performance at both sea level and at altitude. In the absence of this luxury, there are a few interventions which you may want to consider to try lessen the effect of altitude.”
“One such intervention is the use of heat acclimatisation training” he advised. “Heat acclimatisation, may result in an increase in plasma volume, which will have positive effects when trying to perform at altitude. You may include training in the heat, or even include baths in very hot water. It has been proposed to include daily bath, of 15 minutes (or more) at 40 degrees Celsius, immediately after a training ride. Further, nitrate supplementation (in the form of concentrated beetroot juice) and iron supplementation, prior to and during the race may assist with the adaptation to altitude.”
“A standard recommendation for a one-day race, would be to either arrive early (7-10 days prior) to the race start, or to arrive at altitude as close as possible to the race start (within 24 hours)” Dr Posthumus explained. “When planning an arrival for a stage race at altitude, the recommendations would have to change, simply because the dip in performance, which typically happens 2 to 5 days after arriving at attitude will negatively affect your race if you had arrived immediately before the race start. So, my recommendation for a stage race would be to arrive and stay at altitude as early as you can to assist your acclimatisation process.”
Explaining the affects of altitude on the body during exercise, the sport scientist said: “When racing at altitude, your body is not only responding to the stress of the exertion, but also to the additional stress of hypoxia. Due to the decreased oxygen delivery, you will experience increased levels of discomfort in your legs. It is also normal to have an increased heart rate and breathing rate at the same exercise intensity. You may want to start a little more conservatively if you are not experienced at racing at altitude.”
Sheppard knows those sensations all too well. Though she hails from New Zealand she now lives and trains in New South Wales, Australia. The Zwift Academy finalist is a wealth of practical advice. “For anyone looking to compete in the Andorra MTB Classic-Pyrenees or Swiss Epic, in Graubünden, without planning to spend much time at altitude prior to the event, I recommend incorporating regular quality indoor cycling training sessions that aim to increase your VO2 and threshold levels” she stated.
“Given that your threshold at altitude is going to be less than what is achievable at sea level – it’s only going to benefit you to increase your threshold levels leading into the event” Sheppard continued. “Altitude performance gains are achievable for most, these days, with smart trainers and online cycling platforms like Zwift. They enable quality and consistent training sessions with the added benefit of heat stress. This works for most people because heat stress and altitude stress can cause similar adaptations.”
“It’s hard to escape your body heat whilst indoor training so you’re guaranteed to make gains there, but like everything, ‘moderation’ is key” she cautioned. “Avoid targeting both a key interval session and heat training straight off the bat as it will impact your ability to do quality work. I suggest a 1-hour endurance session, without a fan, is a better place to start.”
“Overall, the effects of altitude will differ from person to person. The key to your success will come down to your level of fitness and ability to overcome challenges along the way” Sheppard pointed out. “Finally, race with respect for the altitude – which means to race within yourself (below your power and heart rate zones at sea level).”
“Both the Andorra MTB Classic-Pyrenees and the Swiss Epic, in Graubünden, are tough events but opening your eyes and taking in the scenery around you can often be the secret to overcoming the pain of racing in the high mountains” Sheppard knowingly smiled. “The trails, landscape and race organisation at these events make for a legendary, epic experience!”