The Inside Story: Altitude Training
What do elite skiers do on the glaciers? How do they do it – and why?
“When done right, altitude training can improve fitness and increase your VO2max. If you miss, altitude training can wreck your season or even your career, says Simen Andreas Sveen.
This season the Madshus World Cup skier is aiming for the 15-kilometer skate and the 30-kilometer skiathlon at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. Sveen has been using altitude training successfully for almost a decade, and is also almost finished with medical school at the university of Oslo, giving him an academic approach to the practice. He explains that the key to physiological gains from altitude training is careful planning and diligence at high elevations.
Typically, the 29-year-old Norwegian will do three altitude camps in preparation for the season, each lasting three weeks. He just completed the first of this season’s camps, which was at Seiser Alm in the Italian Alps at about 2000 meters above sea level. During this camp, Sveen was doing only dryland training such as roller skiing and running at elevations ranging from 1900 meters to 2900 meters above sea level. The next camp, which will be in Livigno, Italy, in October, will be on skis and focused on race-season preparations for the FIS season opener in Beitostølen (NOR). Finally, Sveen typically has one last altitude camp in December, aimed at sharpening fitness and honing skills for the meat of the race season.
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Why are the camps three weeks long?
“Research and testing indicate that three weeks is ideal in terms of physiological gains in terms of higher levels of hemoglobin and better VO2max. Several studies also show significantly better effect after three weeks compared to two weeks, and that has been my personal experience as well.”
What do you do before, during and after these camps?
“For the period leading up to an altitude camp, I often include more and harder intensity workouts, because you can’t do as hard of intensity at altitude,” Sveen says.
“During the camp, I am very careful to keep the speed down on all my workouts. At altitude, your heart rate will go higher than at the same speed at sea level. So, to be sure I’m training at the correct intensity, I also do lactate testing during the workouts at altitude, especially the first week. It’s so easy to trick yourself into thinking you are going easy just because you go slower. But you have to be hard on yourself and only add volume and intensity very gradually at altitude. Even for my intensity sessions at altitude, I rarely exceed sub-threshold heart rates, because recovering from hard efforts takes so much longer at altitude. If the workouts are too hard, it’s difficult to complete the volume I have planned for the camp, simply because I wouldn’t recover fast enough to do them all. The last couple of days at altitude, I’m also careful to lower the volume and the intensity so that I return home fresh and ready to resume my regular training program as soon as possible,” he says.
“Once I get back home, I take at least one day off and then gradually work back to my regular program. However, a speed session is one of the first things I do when I get back to sea level. After so long at altitude where the focus is on long, slow distance, it’s useful to kick your body back into moving faster. After that, and if my body responds well to training, I start introducing intensity again. I often start with a few sub-threshold intervals and then I pick up the intensity as I feel ready for harder efforts.
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What do you absolutely NOT do at altitude?
“Altitude training can improve your fitness or, at worst, break your career. Everything takes a bigger toll on your body at altitude, which is particularly evident for intensity. It takes a lot longer to recover from hard workouts at altitude than for a similar workout at sea level. If you don’t do things just right, you risk not only wrecking your season, but your entire career. Accordingly, I am diligent about sticking to my training plan when I’m at altitude. Even if the weather is perfect and you are super motivated, there is a reason why the program is designed the way it is. If you add 20-30 minutes to each easy distance workout, it really adds up over three weeks, and it can be the difference between coming home with better fitness or coming home worn out and overtrained. That’s why I’m also careful to listen to my body when I’m at altitude, and I never do MORE than what the plan calls for.”
Why do we get a positive effect from altitude training?
“This is an area where the experts differ, and there are some who argue that there is no altitude effect. But among those who argue that there is an effect, the theory is that because there is less oxygen in the atmosphere at higher altitude, the body produces more red blood cells in order to increase its ability to carry oxygen to the muscles. Then, when you return to lower elevation, your body has a higher blood volume and can feed your muscles with more oxygen than before the altitude training, and you will feel fitter and faster. On the other hand, there are some experts who argue that if you were as diligent and serious about your training program, sleep, nutrition and recovery at home as you are when you go to altitude, you would experience the same fitness gains without the altitude, although without the increase in hemoglobin levels,” says Sveen, who still believes in the altitude effect.
“Personally, I have tried both, and I feel that I get a significant fitness boost from altitude training. I’ve tested hemoglobin levels/blood volume before and after altitude camps, and my fitness tests also improve after altitude training. But just going to altitude is not enough to see gains. You have to train right and do the right things there. If you plan it right, you will get that light, fast feeling about seven to eight days after returning to lower elevation. That’s the altitude effect, and if you do things right after you get back, you can ride this peak for two to three weeks,” Sveen says.