To help us understand how elite athletes approach training and racing at altitude, I called 2023 Tour de France Combativity Award winner Victor Campenaerts, who set the prestigious hour record at altitude in 2019.
Here are 10 key takeaways from my chat with the Lotto Dstny rider, which will hopefully provide you with some inspiration if you're considering training at altitude...
10 tips from the top... 🚵♂️
1. Consider getting high in Mexico (if you're attempting a world record)
- Victor chose the Aguascalientes Velodrome, which sits at an altitude of 1,887 metres (6,190'), as the venue for his 2019 World Hour Record
- He felt that the benefits of aero gains (due to lower air density) at altitude outweighed his reduced ability to extract oxygen from the air
- With ‘like for like’ power, Victor estimated he could go ~3km further in 1 hour than at sea level
- But at that height, he expected a ~15% reduction in his Functional Threshold Power (FTP), even if he was well adapted, so optimising his acclimatisation protocol was critical...
2. Use training camps ⛺
- To prepare his body, he spent 2 months training at a similar height in Namibia
- He came down to sea level briefly to race and then relocated to Mexico to prepare at the velodrome, using an altitude tent to sleep 'even higher' and increase the physiological adaptations
We joined Victor and the Lotto Dstny team for a pre-season training camp. Here's what we learned...
3. Live High, Train Low (LHTL)
As well as having raced at altitude, Victor regularly utilises periods of altitude training to boost his performance at sea level. He often adopts the LHTL method...
- Victor will do blocks of training at altitude by living at around ~2,000m for extended periods of time. He spends as much time as possible in thin air in order to trigger the production of hemoglobin-rich red blood cells to ferry oxygen to his muscles
- He does most of his steady training up high, but rides on lower roads when he needs to do high power intervals and efforts in oxygen-rich air
- This is because your heart rate and lactate levels are higher when doing easy rides at height, due to the additional stress the altitude imposes
- It also reduces heart rates and lactate production at peak effort, so those sessions are more productive when done lower down
4. Build slowly
- Victor pointed out how cautious he is for the first week, as training and living at altitude is notably stressful on the body
- He does ~12 hours of training in the first week (dramatically less than his norm) and removes additional stressors like sauna and heat training sessions
5. Manage your altitude training load
- Victor has a basic equation for comparing training loads at different altitudes during the course of a week: multiply the training hours x the altitude 🧮
- So, 20 hours a week at 2,000m (6,561') would result in a similar training stress level to 10 hours at 4,000m (13,123')
- Victor recognises that his respiration rate is higher and the air is often drier, so you need to drink more. His rule of thumb is to drink 150% of his normal ‘in ride’ intake, plus additional fluids throughout the day
7. Eat more
- To account for the higher level of energy expenditure that operating at altitude requires, Victor consumes ~15g more carb per hour on training rides and adds an additional 200Kcal of carb per day to his regular diet
8. Are you a 'responder'? 🤔
- He thinks that the debate around ‘responders’ and ‘non-responders’ to altitude may have some merit
- But adds the caveat that maybe people get different responses because they don’t fully research and understand the nuances of how to get the most out of training at altitude
- If you're interested in learning more about the responder vs. non-responder debate, check out this article from acclaimed author Alex Hutchinson
9. How high is high enough?
- Research suggests that ~2,000m is the sweet spot in terms of height for most people to aim for when considering an altitude training camp venue
10. Victor's final thoughts
- Victor's main advice to anyone looking to use altitude training to boost their performance is to "respect the additional stress on your body"
- Training too hard and not recovering enough in the first seven days is a common mistake and one to be avoided
- He also stressed that the more time spent at altitude in a training block (within reason), the better