As my last block of training before heading into full blown race season, I had planned a training camp at altitude but I wanted to do it at home, in Victoria. Following the "sleep high, train low" philosophy, I decided to sleep at about 6000 feet while continuing to follow my VERY demanding training schedule without modification. This can be facilitated by using an altitude tent by Hypoxico. This year I have pushed to new levels not only cycling but definitely with my swimming and running, but using altitude can improve your aerobic fitness quicker and with less damage on your body because it will challenge your cardiovascular physiology without impact/training. There is a lot of debate over the effectiveness of altitude but I find it is mostly scientists that are debating whether it works. Coaches and athletes are just doing it and winning and not worrying about debates over scientific evidence. I truly believe that altitude, whether it is real altitude training or in a tent, works well for developing endurance fitness.
However, altitude is very demanding. There were some very ugly days in the pool, on the bike and trudging through some runs because altitude adds another heavy load to your body beyond what you are treating it to while training. Because I was still training at sea level, I could still do all of the quality work that I had planned, which really isn't possible when you go to altitude to train (at least until you are acclimated). It is important to use every physiological marker you can to determine how your body is recovering: your morning heart rate, your weight, an evaluation of how you are feeling and, particularly while training with altitude, your blood saturation (as determined with an oximeter). While training at altitude I use an oxygen monitor to determine exactly what % oxygen is inside the tent and an oximeter to see how this % oxygen is affecting me. HOWEVER, if one of these markers should be inaccurate, say due to an oximeter that is a piece of junk, you may make unfortunate decisions based on the marker. One of these poor decisions might be increasing the altitude. And thus begins the story as to why I skipped the NORBA in Fontana…..
On paper my last two weeks seemed like a challenge but nothing too out of the ordinary. There was one break through brick workout per week, a long group road ride, an interval bike workout, a tempo run, a long mountain bike ride and a long steady state run. Add to that five swims of varying intensity and you have a 23 hour week followed by a 26-27 hour week depending on our recovery markers. The key workout of the week ended up happening on Tuesday, a hell brick workout of 5x5minutes on the Computrainer on my road bike with my Powertap followed by 5x4mins on the treadmill back to back. Sounds easy, huh? Well the intervals on the Computrainer were done at what would have been 100% of my maximum aerobic power two years ago and 94% of last year. It was scary to look at when I first saw it. The run workout seemed okay, it was a pace that I had done last year only fresh, with an extra minute of rest and definitely not after 25 minutes at a gnarly wattage on the bike. Cliff and Houshang are evil. But nothing like computerized machines to give you only two options. Do the workout or fail and feel like a piece of crap because you are SURE you could have sucked it up a little more. Actually the treadmill is even more evil than the Computrainer because if you fail you fall down, smash your face and THEN feel like a bag of crap because if you had just sucked it up a little more not only would you not have a broken nose, you might have pushed through the workout and felt like a million bucks! This is the way you make your training so much harder than racing that racing feels like a ride in the park.
So this is how it went. My Tuesday morning swim was great, the key workout for the week was the brick, which went amazing. Then I did the group ride and embarassed myself by getting dropped on every climb. My run on Thursday was average, my intervals on Friday weren't record breaking and I suffered through the group mtb ride on Saturday. By Sunday, I ran great… finally recovered. At that point I increased the altitude of the tent from 6,000 to 10,000 feet. The oximeter was telling me the altitude wasn't high enough. My body was thinking it was wrong but I thought I could trust the numbers. Took an easy Monday and hit it again, only increasing the number of run intervals off the bike. Tuesday was again, incredible, then the rest of the week happened. I was smashed on the group ride, slow run intervals… a similar pattern to last week only even more depressing. Only in the second week not only did my training reflect the load, but my morning heart rates were skyrocketing. By Sunday my morning heart rate was 20 beats above normal rested and I knew I was physically incapable of doing the entire load of volume and intensity I had planned. I packed it in early and started to wonder about that oximeter. I started taking readings after drinking a coffee. Basically that piece of junk read between 95% and 98% all of the time, no variation. I don't know how long it has not been working but I finally figured it out. Unfortunately, not before I had trained myself into a bit of a body bag… and it is frighteningly close to race season to need to take a break.
So upon assesment of my body's present state, I cancelled the next three days of training and my flight to Los Angeles for the NORBA. I threw the oximeter in the garbage and talked to the guys at Hypoxico. They told me that they do not sell that brand because it is junk (I bought the thing on eBay, it is a yellow little thing with a purple sleeve that fits on your finger, don’t buy it) and agreed to send me a new one. I took the week off of the tent to recover. After three days of easy training I did a bit of intensity on the treadmill on Thursday. Not great, but not a disaster. Then I did some intervals on the Computrainer on Friday. Blew away anything I have ever done ever in my life. Things are looking up. Went to a local mountain bike race in Parksville to race the boys, one of whom was Ross who I convinced to enter his FIRST mountain bike race and race the expert distance (he bet me $5000 for the win,only I was the only one paying if the loser , and Ross did awesome). Hit my derailleur hanger at the top of the first climb, rode a 12 speed for the rest of the race and negative split the second half of the race. Then I ran the same tempo 5 km run on Sunday and matched my personal best that I achieved while rested. I think things are back on track.
So the moral of this story is as follows. First, it takes really, really hard work to get better. Part of that hard work is feeling like crap during some of your training. However, there is a difference between being tired and being incapable of doing the work. I actually got to the point of not being able to do the work so I pulled the plug. Maybe if I hadn’t backed off and instead tried to stay on my plan I would have buried myself so deep I couldn’t come out in time for important races. Only you know when enough is enough. Using physiological markers to track how you are feeling and how you are recovering is very important. If you are going to add an altitude tent to your program it is even more important to pay attention to how your body is adapting to it. The tent will give you huge benefits but it must be respected as an added stress. Be smart about your training, but also, don’t be a wimp. The quality of your training will determine the quality of your racing!