Monday, 12 October 2009

World Half Seminar Part 3 - Altitude

Part 3 of my write up from the weekend covers Altitude Training. I've stitched together materials from several parts of the evening and felt that it was worth doing this to present a coherent picture of what the panel thought about the use of altitude.

Ian Stewart mentioned at the start that he believed altitude was a critical ingredient in endurance success and to that end would be setting up altitude camps in east africa and europe for attendance by british athletes (it would be great to get some more detail on this so if from someone at UKA is reading feel free to add more ...).

Ian's belief was in part based on his personal experience. He trained at St moritz duing the 1970's and told the audience about the pre-Munich camp when he was training with Brendan Foster and Ron Hill. Ron had a bad time in Munich and in part this was blamed on altitude by the press and Ron himself. Ian was clear that Ron was running badly when he got to altitude and continued running badly at sea level. The point being that altitude is no magic bullet to get out of shape athletes fit.

Alberto agreed with this and went further saying that you needed to be in very good shape before going to altitude to get the most out of it. He talked about the effect that altitude has on the body and focused on two main changes that impact running performance. The first was the increase in red blood cells (presumabley size as well as quantity) and also the improvement in lactate buffering capability.

Then it started to get interesting. Prompted to comment by 'MC' Geoff Wightman whether there was any truth about Alberto training himself wearing a facemask and respirator device to reduce the flow of oxygen to his lungs he revealed that indeed he had. And that it didnt work though at the time he didn't understand why. (This was one of several examples Alberto gave where his experience as an athlete has led him to do something quite different as a coach). The bottom line was that it takes the body about 90 minutes to start responding to hypoxia by producing extra EPO from the kidneys. So the length of time he wearing the mask for wasn't long enough to produce a response - but was long enough to tire him out.

So what was the best altitude for training ? Again Salazar dominated the conversation hear with a point of view (probably backed up by a load of research from Nike at a guess) that you need to be at 7000feet to get the benefit of increased blood volume and red cell count while lower levels were sufficient to get some of the lactate buffering benefits. And it was living at altitude more than training there that brings the benefit. Pushed for an ideal scenario alberto would live at 7000-8000 feet and train at 4000ft. His group were able to do something similar to this in Utah where they stayed high then came down to Salt Lake City to train.

I asked him about racing after coming down from altitude because I had observed Kara Goucher leave St Moritz 4 days before the Worlds which confused the hell out of me. His response surprised me to say the least. she continued to use an altitude tent until 48 hours before the race ! And Dathan would be doing the same in Birmingham before the World Half (clearly it worked). That left me curious as to whether they were using an altitude tent even in St Moritz to sleep higher than they were training at (6000ft). My guess is that they were.

So does altitude work for everyone ? Certainly not for Liz McColgan. While Liz was able to train OK at altitude she said that she had real trouble racing afterwards and couldn't seem to find any form. She hit on an alternative, hot weather. And she meant hot. Florida was a favourite destination for her and she found that training in hot, humid conditions provided a similar boost. Glenn Latimer chipped in by recalling how a supposedly washed up
Steve Jones spent the summer of '88 training in a hot and steamy Illinois before going on to win the New York Marathon that autumn in 2:08.20. The consensus seemed to be that altitude works for the vast majority and you need to be in good shape already to get the most out of it.

When it comes to measuring the effects of altitude Salazar was pretty blunt. Measuring Haematocrit and Heamoglobin are really just measures of hydration and therefore useless for measuring whether you actually got more red cells (Note: both measures are a ratio of solid matter to the liquid part of the blood so clearly any increase/decrease in plasma volume will have an impact on the ratio). He meaures the total red cell mass though didnt explain how or how frequently.

The altitude discussion wrapped up with George Gandy explaining how after a spell of training in Boulder, Colorado Jon Brown struggled to adjust to sea level race pace and had a disappointing London Marathon. And then he promptly turned to Alberto to ask if he had any insights into what might have gone wrong ! Top coach, always wanting to learn more. And the willingness to share experiences and lessons learned was a feature of the whole evening - and a stark contrast to what I often see with UK coaches trying to protect their precious knowledge from each other.

The topic of altitude came up again on saturday at the England Athletics seminar on 'Tranistion from 10k to Marathon' which was the warm up act for the launch of the National Coach Development Programme (all event groups). Both Charlie Spedding and Richard Nerurkar trained in Kenya and America during their careers and felt that altitude was a key part of an endurance runners development though Charlie's advisor, Lindsay Dunn, had a different take on how to use altitude focusing on faster pace training with plenty of recovery rather as opposed to the bigger volume blocks that many athletes go for.

Part 1 - Reviving distance running
Part 2 - Progression


Francisco Javier Rosa said...

Love it man, really useful stuff . I am glad that you shared it for everyone to see.

Cheers from Germany.

Adrian Marriott said...

You are welcome !