Cycling at High Altitude | Barton Haynes

Bart Haynes here in sunny San Diego, kicking off my series about bike training advice: this article will talk about the benefits and preparation of training at high altitudes. 

Why Train at High Altitude

Barton Haynes Altitude

Training at high altitudes can offer some major benefits, including: 

  • Increased lung capacity
  • Increased lactic acid threshold
  • Increased red cell volume (for transporting oxygen)
  • Increased ability for muscles to extract oxygen from blood

In short, your ability to remain strong and healthy on long rides will gain significant benefit. Instead of finishing a century race barely able to cross the finish line, you will be able to finish feeling strong. It also means you can push hard longer during a ride.

These benefits exist because at higher altitudes there is less oxygen, and so your body because more efficient at absorbing oxygen by making more of a hormone called EPO. If you train at high altitude and then cycle in a race at lower altitude, it will feel the same as training for a swim with your clothes on and then performing the race with a Speedo. 

Danger of Training at High Altitudes

Barton Haynes High

Unfortunately, you may not be able to just drive over to your local mountain and start riding, namely because you need to acclimatize. If you do not properly acclimatize, you may experience altitude sickness. Altitude sickness symptoms include:

  • Dizziness or headaches
  • Weakness
  • Sickness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Decreased coordination

How to Acclimatize 

You can acclimatize by adjusting your body to the high altitude. This is not an instant process, and will take baby steps – much like when you first started cycling. To put it a different way, you can adjust by pretending that you are training to cycle for the first time. Here’s how:

  1. See your doctor for a medical checkup
  2. Make sure you get in good shape before you begin
  3. Start with short cycling workouts at high altitude – if you are training for a race beginning training at high altitude at least a couple of months before your race
  4. Each preceding cycling workout should be longer and more intense – interval cycling workouts are good

As you train, make sure you drink extra fluids as your body will require more than the usual amount.