Mountain cyclists who have experience in bicycling with higher altitudes might know that these high altitudes can lead to severe physical changes in some cases. Altitude sickness is quite common among mountain bikers, and it is essential to take appropriate measures to avoid severe symptoms and improve performance at altitude. At higher altitudes, the barometric pressure decreases significantly, resulting in less oxygen absorption and a reduced oxygen level in the blood.
At these positions, the air density changes while the oxygen percentage remains the same. As a result of these density changes, there becomes less oxygen to breathe. As your blood will absorb less oxygen, the amount of oxygen that your muscles drink and use will also be reduced, called VO2 max. If you are riding 5000 feet above sea level, your VO2 max will decrease by approximately 5%. Similarly, depending on the Mount Evans Hill Climb, which stands tall at 14000 feet, your body’s oxygen uptake will drop by 25% compared to the sea level.
However, most riders might usually experience acute mountain sickness or some symptoms of altitude sickness, but some of the riders remain unaffected. For example, riders from Indiana seem to be negatively unaffected when riding at high altitudes. They don’t seem to bother two miles higher than their regular training roads that pass through the cornfields. While some riders might immediately start panting or get ‘Chicago’s lungs.’ Most riders’ bodies tend to acclimatize quickly when riding at high altitudes, so special measures should be taken before setting on such a journey.
How High Altitudes Affect the Physical Patterns?
As we have already given a quick insight into what affects the breathing patterns while riding at high altitudes, here is a detailed description of the process and the causes. Knowing the proper mechanism and how it works to train for the higher altitudes and make the riding experience more successful is essential. As the oxygen levels at high altitudes are lower, the cardiovascular system adapts accordingly to work efficiently in such cases. While riding at high altitudes, there is an increase in the production of red blood cells. As blood cells production increases, your blood starts carrying more oxygen to provide for the muscles and the lungs. This is also referred to as the most critical part of altitude training.
You must remember that the proportion of oxygen in the air is not affected at all at a high altitude, but there is relatively more minor air overall. You might already know that air consists of 21% oxygen which means that out of 100 molecules of air, there will be 21 molecules of oxygen. There is less air pressure when riding at a higher altitude, decreasing the total amount of air molecules, thus, lesser oxygen molecules. This explains why there is reduced oxygen availability at higher altitudes.
Higher altitude means lower air density. If you go a little above 2700 m elevation, which is the highest you can go in Europe, the oxygen level will drop by approximately six percent. This will affect the whole body’s functioning because there will be a decreased level of air absorption in blood, lungs, and muscles. When you are at sea level, there is a large amount of oxygen absorbed by your lungs and blood; thus, you are ideally saturated up to 98 to 99%. But in the case of a drop in the oxygen level in the blood, the blood oxygen saturation level might drop down to even 90%, that too when at rest.
The reduced oxygen level is one of the biggest reasons why riding at higher altitudes is the most difficult. Also, it is why mountain biking is termed as one of the most challenging bike riding types, and this is why cyclists need proper training before they go depending on higher altitudes. Even though you might think that cyclists are exceptionally fit beings, they will still face a disturbance in their physical patterns at higher altitudes.
Tips to Prepare for Biking at Higher Altitudes
The fresh air that higher mountains and trails offer is not as easy to breathe in. Even though the view from up high looks the most breathtaking, the disturbance in breathing patterns might make the experience a little inconvenient and frustrating. Especially when you are not used to higher altitudes and lack training in such terrains, the altitude hike with a bike might be more disturbing for you. It can be changed with proper altitude training and some practical tips.
If you are not willing to register yourself in some expensive high altitude training tent yet, you can take help from some valuable tips that we have discussed below;
- Training at Higher Altitudes
As absurd as it might sound, you can never try something new on a race track without any practice before. This applies to the nutrition and gear that a person might need on race day and the altitude of the race track. Different people have different physical responses while riding through higher elevations. Everyone has an additional capacity to hang at various heights; some people start getting symptoms at moderate sizes, some at natural altitudes, while some are completely fine even at higher altitudes.
Moreover, you never know how your body will react at a particular altitude unless you go at that height. This is because no matter how much you test and prepare yourself at sea level, you will not be able to observe all the physiological changes in your body when at a high altitude. The heart rate and systolic blood pressure increase with elevation during the VO2 max, plasma, and oxygen saturation decrease. All these physiological changes happen on a sliding scale, so it is essential to spend some time at a particular altitude to get used to it and observe your body changes simultaneously.
All these reasons indicate that you should try training at higher altitudes if you plan to participate in such activities or races. This is necessary to observe your body changes and check how your body reacts under particular circumstances. So, train yourself in the mountains similar to those you plan to race on to give your best performance.
- Try Hypoxic Training
If you don’t have much experience riding on higher altitudes, you might not know that it gives you a scary sensation of breathlessness. This scares the most riders and does not continue with the more increased altitude cycling. But is to be kept in mind that any average cyclist can learn to perform efficiently and without any inconvenience on higher altitudes with a bit of training. Also, cyclists must know that they have to breathe more quickly and rapidly to subside the effects of breathlessness. You can prepare yourself more efficiently for higher altitudes on sea-level training using a hypoxic mask or moderate hypoxia.
There is a difference between feeling breathless and working too hard. Once you know the difference between these two, you will get more comfortable while cycling at a higher altitude trek. With an efficient hypoxic mask, you will be able to experience all the environmental changes that you might encounter at an altitude hiking. It provides all similar sensations, including the feeling of breathlessness, a higher rate of perceived exertion, and increased respiratory effort. Therefore, whenever training at sea level, you can always wear a hypoxic mask to get used to the uncomfortable feeling to perform well in the actual race or exercise at altitude.
However, some studies have shown that you must not wholly depend on hypoxic masks as they do not affect the hemoglobin or hematocrit levels. Both these levels increase in the blood when you are cycling at higher altitudes, resulting in other physiological changes that can not be observed when using a hypoxic mask. You can improve your endurance performance by using this mask which gives better benefits than you get by only doing high-intensity interval training.
- Increase VO2 Max
High-intensity interval training is recommended to improve the exertion threshold. It would help if you kept in mind that cyclists don’t bike at their VO2 max, and it is proven that your max drops by 10 to 15% while riding at high altitude. This explains why you cannot perform with the same intensity which you can perform while riding at sea level. If you utilize 80% of your VO2 max at sea level, you will be using 90% while cycling at higher altitudes. This causes fatigue faster, and you will not be able to keep the same effort level throughout.
Moreover, you can also incorporate HIIT, which will help your body get used to the physiological changes that you might be experiencing to improve your performance at altitude. It will make you work harder than you will have to in the case of higher altitudes so that when your body will naturally start working according to the elevation when riding at higher altitudes. Once you reach the size, you have to back off. If you want to finish your race, you will have to pull back your speed or exercise intensity.
- Consider a CVAC System
A CVAV system has proven quite helpful for training purposes for high-altitude cycling. This system is designed to lower the atmospheric pressure and go up and down the altitude. These fluctuations in the airtight pods result in flushing metabolic wastes from the cells and help in the circulation of lymphatic fluid. All these factors are responsible for assisting in altitude adjustment.
Investing in a CVAC system is worth the money and is not too expensive. Most bikers can easily afford it and benefit from it efficiently. These sessions can be found in high-end training and recovery facilities that cost between $45 and $100. This makes it perfect for mountain cyclists to take CVAC sessions two times or even five times a week. You will see definite improvements in your performance at altitudes in a couple of weeks by taking these sessions regularly.
- Strengthen your Breathing Muscles
Even though you can only use training masks during workouts, there are ways in which you can improve or strengthen your breathing muscles. Working on your breathing muscles before you get to your riding track will surely enhance your endurance during the riding and soothe your acclimatization process. The studies have shown that once you have worked on strengthening these muscles, you will experience delayed fatigue, increased blood flow among muscles during cycling, and kept blood oxygen levels higher.
Various experiments over time have proven that working on your breathing muscles offers plenty of beneficial effects. With the help of proper muscle training, it enhances and maintains a higher ventilation rate which improves oxygen supply to the muscles without causing any changes in their rates of perceived exertion.
You can practice and strengthen your muscles with the help of an explicitly designed Bluetooth-connected device. It is referred to as PrO2fit that becomes a hindrance to breathing too deeply. Once you have this device connected to your smartphone, it instantly informs you when you are breathing too hard or when you have to hold it to strengthen your breathing muscles. It also provides you with real-time feedback, which enables you to keep track of your performance and helps you determine if you should put in more effort or not. Although this device is not as cheap and might cost you a couple of hundred dollars, it is still more affordable than the altitude tents.
- Take Iron Supplements
Iron is an essential nutritional supplement for endurance athletes. The primary component of hemoglobin is iron. Therefore, it plays a significant role in carrying oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. The deficiency of iron results in lowering VO2 max, which eventually reduces the amount of oxygen reaching your muscles. Iron deficiency is quite common in women, and a lower oxygen environment tends to trigger mild symptoms or even some severe ones.
In the case of athletes, they experience iron deficiency even if they are not participating in altitude biking. The researchers have estimated that almost 18 to 57 percent of women athletes suffer from some iron deficiency. It can be due to excessive sweating, skin, GI tract, urine, and measurement. Moreover, athletes are more prone to iron deficiencies because exercise results in the iron loss by as much as 70%.
Therefore, it is suggested that you start taking your iron supplements a couple of weeks before you set on spending days at altitude to avoid acute altitude illness or mild symptoms as a result of deficiency. The amount of elemental iron in every supplement might differ as various supplemental with different iron percentages. The number of iron elementals or the milligrams is usually mentioned on the packaging to compare multiple brands and doses according to your requirements. However, it is essential to get a proper checkup before setting yourself on the iron supplements journey. This is because having excessive iron in your blood is just as dangerous as is its deficiency.
- Arrive Early
It is always recommended to reach your terrestrial altitude or before you set on altitude endurance competitions to arrive at the place earlier, ideally a week before. It is one of the most essential altitude tips that you should consider as it will give your body time to adjust to the surroundings. It also provides you with a ventilatory acclimatization period or acclimatization before you set on your high-altitude exposure.
By arriving at the place earlier, your body will adjust to the new time zone and your sleep pattern, i.e., if the altitude to sleep is comfortable for you. It also gives you an idea of how much hydration you need, whether you need to drink plenty of water or not, or whether you need any medical attention. Even though researchers have proven that it is not necessary to reach the venue earlier, it has proven quite beneficial to the cyclists over time and has prevented loss of coordination.
When you are at higher altitudes, your body starts reacting and producing more red blood cells to carry more significant amounts of oxygen throughout your body even when you return to sea level. This is what makes the high-altitude camps and tents more popular. However, some studies have shown that it might also negatively affect cyclists if they pursue this pre-exposure.
- Keep Yourself Hydrated
At high elevations, your body loses more water through sweat than you do at a natural altitude. Even though you might not see any sweat as it evaporates quickly due to the low humidity in the environment, your body is losing water excessively at all times. So, it is essential to drink water excessively and keep yourself hydrated.
It would help if you took your water bottle everywhere you go and even kept one at your side while sleeping so that whenever you open your eyes, you take some sips. If you are not urinating almost twice during the night, you must know that you are not drinking enough water, and you should improve your water intake immediately.
- Don’t Forget Sunscreen
You might already know how cruel the sun is at higher altitudes. The sun’s intense rays at higher elevations result in severe skin burns. People who have tanned at a natural length are also prone to the skin burning from these fierce sun rays. Therefore, it is essential to have a thick sunscreen cover on yourself if you categorize yourself as altitude hikers or altitude runners or are even hiking at a height.
Along with applying sunscreen, you must also wear more protective clothing, especially long-sleeved shirts, and avoid wearing shorts or skirts. You can also use leg-warmers and jerseys to prevent heat from reaching your skin.
- Sleep at a High Altitude, Train at a Low One
When staying at a high-altitude venue, try to sleep at higher elevations and train at lower ones or sea level. Sleeping at higher altitude forces your body to produce more red blood cells and carry more oxygen, which is helpful in cycling. So, it is recommended to sleep at a relatively higher altitude or at least at the same altitude before riding to the race venue.
Moreover, you can also train at lower levels as your body can generate more power when you are practicing at sea level. This also causes a more significant training stimulus to help you throughout your training and race.
What should you Expect while Exercising at Altitude?
Different athletes have different capacities when exercising at altitude, as everyone has their respiratory capacity and exercise capacity. Also, the acclimatization period of other people might differ. Some athletes living at higher altitudes might also face inconvenience or have a more significant acclimatization period when exercising at altitude. These variations of physiological changes among cyclists can seriously affect their performance.
We are here with some changes in the athletes or their performances that you can expect when cycling at higher altitudes. So, without wasting any more time, let’s discuss some essential changes among athletes at elevations.
When you go at altitudes higher than 6000 feet, you will experience an approximately 10% decrease in sustainable power at the lactate threshold compared to the sea level. This decline will continue as you go higher, especially when you cross 9000 feet.
At a particular power output or perceived exertion, the heart rate response increases. This is more than likely to happen when you don’t have enough practice or in your fresher days.
When putting in more strenuous efforts, you will see that you are not recovering as fast as you are at sea level. You will have to slow down at points or take frequent breaks during your exercise.
You will not be able to make strenuous efforts constantly.
As the air at altitudes is drier, you will feel more dehydrated. When you are new to higher altitudes, you will be able to know that the continuous headaches dehydrate you. So make sure to drink plenty of water when you are at elevations and keep taking your caffeine. Prevent alcohol as it can lead to more dehydration, disturbed sleep patterns, and headaches.
How can you Prepare yourself to Give your Best Performance at Altitudes?
Once you have prepared yourself efficiently to perform at altitudes, you must get proper sleep and rest before you get to the field to prevent acute mountain illness and give your best. Ensure that you have no time for exhaustion by taking adequate rest, which can also positively affect physiological and ventilatory responses. Also, make sure that you are fit when you reach your high elevation venue. Your fitness at the time of the race will significantly affect your performance, and therefore, you cannot afford to be any less fit than your fellow cyclists.
However, you must keep in mind that all the cyclists will have a relatively decreased performance as the physiological responses are not only affecting you but all. But you can do your best to avoid the adverse effects and improve your immune function.
Even though high altitude camps can provide benefits or spending more significant time in the venue might help, it might be difficult for people already leading busy lives. People who have other careers and are not professional altitude cyclists might not have enough time to get the training or adjust their bodies. But it is essential to get proper training and get yourself accustomed to the surroundings if you want to perform well during the race.
If you haven’t had time to acclimate yourself to the surroundings at a moderate to high altitude, here are some tips for improving your race day performance.
Try to reach the high altitude venue almost five to seven days before the race. Most cyclists tend to get to the venue two or three days before, which is not ideal because, after these days, fatigue kicks in, and you will not be able to give your best on the race day. Reach the venue a day before the race day. In that case, you will be fresh on the first day. Still, on the race day, you will start to feel your cognitive functions effecting and might also experience acute hypoxia or acute exposure to various other high altitude physiological changes. After four to five days, the cyclists adapt to the surroundings by becoming more hydrated and getting some rest after training in the first one or two days.
The second thing you can do to improve your performance efficiently and instantly is to rely on perceived exertion for pacing. As the individual responses, arterial oxygen saturation capacity, and aerobic capacity might differ, it can become confusing to adjust your goal power outputs and heart rates accordingly. In altitude endurance competitions or the case of altitude hikers, all these factors matter a lot. It is essential to monitor your heart rate as it displays all the other elements, including fatigue, hydration status, heat exposure, and excitement. Not only that but monitoring the power is also as important. Therefore, even though perceived exertion is not as high tech, it is perfectly accurate and is one of the most recommended altitude tips for managing the activity instantly or improving ideally in no time.
You can quickly maximize your performance at high altitudes by taking proper rest, focusing on your fitness, staying hydrated, and practicing conservative pacing. Even though various other complex strategies are available that prove immensely helpful in enhancing performance at high altitudes, whether it is a simple exercise, cycling, or trekking, these basic ones are the basis of any training you will pursue.
Even though you don’t want to get professional training or do not have the time to do so, you can quickly improve by following these tips efficiently and thoughtfully without stressing out. Make sure that you are clear-headed when you are training so that you can perform better. Do not let the physiological changes play with your mind keep yourself focused and well-aimed at all times and keep in mind your exercise capacity and respiratory capacity.
Even if you don’t have acclimatization in advance, you can still make your way through without focusing on time to exhaustion. You can check your altitude location and get a pre – exposure before the race. Moreover, you can also consult a medical professional and discuss your exercise capacity. All these factors prove quite helpful if you don’t have proper acclimatization.
High altitudes can be scary for people who don’t have experience with it. The sensation of breathlessness makes many people quit as soon as they step into a high-altitude venue. But it can be easily changed if people accept that the physiological changes they are experiencing are not what they are experiencing only. Elevations tend to affect the performance of everyone by a good percentage, and that is what should be enough motivation for any person to get themselves to perform better. With the help of the tips mentioned above and facts, you can quickly improve your performance at high altitudes even if you cannot afford an altitude camp or tent.
You can always invest in a high-altitude tent if you are willing to get more professional while racing or can pursue a 10-day altitude training camp. But it doesn’t mean that you cannot efficiently enhance your performance otherwise. The only thing that you have to do is to keep track of all the changes your body is experiencing at height and how you can make everything better. You can take guidance from experts who have been into altitude cycling for some time and check if you are taking appropriate measures or not. You must focus on improving your performance but do not compromise on your fitness and rest.
Moreover, if you don’t have much experience cycling at higher altitudes, you can prepare yourself by accepting the changes that your body will face. Once you have received them without freaking out, you can make them better, automatically increasing your performance during the primary activity or race day. Make sure that you don’t stress yourself out and try to breathe more as by living more, half of your problems will be easily solved, and your breathing patterns will improve. Don’t forget to keep yourself highly hydrated and well-rested if you don’t want your performance to be affected at the last hour; try your best with the practice and all the other factors and take a good amount of rest. Don’t panic; you will be just fine!