I’m writing this blog in a coffee shop in Flagstaff Arizona, a small city located at an eye-opening 7000ft of elevation. Endurance athletes from all over the world flock to Flagstaff because of its temperate spring weather, appropriately high altitude, and close proximity to lower elevations for hard workouts. So far this trip, I’ve seen Canadian, American, Swedish, Australian, Dutch, British, Icelandic, Japanese, and Norwegian athletes preparing for the upcoming track season. Pretty diverse for an otherwise sleepy college town in the middle of nowhere!
Even though Flagstaff is stunningly beautiful, the training hasn’t been all pretty. Being at such a high altitude makes exercise HARD, and we’ve had to be careful not to over-train. Easy runs are slower than I’ve done in years, though my heart rate and heavy breathing would suggest otherwise. Long intervals feel like all-out sprints, and moderate-paced tempo runs are nauseating. Luckily, the training camp environment allows lots of time for naps and hearty cooking to help recover from taxing sessions. Every morning, we monitor our resting heart rates, hydration, and weights to make sure that we are keeping healthy and adapting properly. We’ve also had to set our egos aside and give up our desire to show off as we slog through runs at pedestrian paces.
Why on earth would high performance athletes choose to make training even harder? If done properly, a few weeks of altitude training can bring on two major training adaptations. When athletes first descend back to sea level, our plasma blood volumes will expand, which improves endurance performance. This adaptation only lasts a few days, but is great for racing immediately post-camp, as I will. A few weeks later, athletes should find themselves with more red blood cells than before the altitude camp, which improves oxygen transport to exercising muscles and again enhances endurance performance. This adaptation lasts a few weeks as red blood cells have a finite lifespan– ideal for spring and early summer races.
I love my weeks spent at Flagstaff Training Camp. Up here, the air is so crisp and sun so bright that I
swear my contact lens prescription could be downgraded. There are hundreds of miles of dirt running trails that extend through the forest and mountains right in town, making every session breath-taking in multiple ways. The training camp lifestyle is a very enjoyable luxury. Leaving home and all of its distractions for a short period is refreshingly laid back, meaning that every activity I do is conducive to performance. I’ve been staying with about 20 other athletes from all over Canada, and the companionship is wonderful. Not only is it a pleasure to have company on nearly every run, but watching my peers train as hard as they can, day in and day out is humbling. I've only got a few more days in thin air before heading to California to begin my track season, and I can't wait to see how my work translates into performance!