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Guest Commentary: Training for skiing at altitude
By:  Tom McCarthy   (2007/11/17)


Vesa Suomalainen is a masters skier from Washington State. He grew up racing at an elite level in Finland, and came to North America on a ski scholarship to the University of New Mexico, before taking some time off skiing to build a career. He has now devoted himself to a strong result at the upcoming World Masters Championships in McCall, Idaho. Vesa spends a lot of time thinking about how to train effectively. Here are his thoughts on training effectively at altitude. They are based partly on a well-written article on altitude training that appears in the link below:


I am training for the Masters World Champs which will be held this year at McCall, Idaho at an altitude of 5,000 feet.

I am counting that the Europeans are coming to McCall unprepared for the altitude. There's an opportunity for us to prepare well and get an unfair advantage from racing at 5,000 feet. Based on conversations with many coaches and top-level athletes over the last year, so far the key take-aways

1. Go to altitude 5-10 days before the race. A good rule of thumb is one day per each 1,000 feet of altitude change. For McCall this means 5 days - more if you can afford it. The absolute worst timing is to arrive 2-3 days before the race.

2. The best type of training during the first couple of days in altitude is super-slow, extra-long distance training to try to counter the body's natural reaction to reducing blood's plasma volume. I.e. 2-3 hour workouts at low heart rate.

3. The body will acclimatize to altitude more quickly and more completely, if you've been to altitude (and gone through the acclimitazion process) in the preceding 2-3 months.

4. To get any blood-boosting benefits out of a high-altitude camp, a minimum of 10-day camp is required, 2-3 weeks is even better. Another useful strategy is to repeat 2-week altitude camps, with 2-3 weeks of low-altitude training in between. The scientific literature claims that 5,000 feet is
not high enough to boost Hkr and Hb in a measurable way - but my own experience of living in Albuquerque (at 5,000 feet) in the 80's would suggest otherwise. During that time my highest Hb was 18.4 g/dL and Hkr 52.4%. My values now (measured 3 weeks ago) are 14.2 and 42.1%.

5. Intensity training during altitude camps may be counter-productive - higher lactate levels and lower concentration of oxyxen make intervals into a slow-motion exercise compared to sea level. Plus it will eat into the volume hours which appears to be where the adaptations for both acclimitazion and blood boosting mostly take effect. A good suggestion to keep up the "leg speed" is to mix in downhill sprints every couple of days.

6. Altitude tents are useless for blood-boosting benefits, unless you plan on camping out a minimum of 12 hours per day. They may be useful for helping with acclimitazion.

7. It is important to have sufficient iron stores in your blood (value called Ferritin) when going up high. By far the best source of iron is red meat - if you don't eat red meat 2-3 times a week, coaches highly recommend iron supplements before and during altitude camps. My own Ferritin level is 448 ng/mL - normal range is from 22-322. I take no iron supplements, but eat lots of red meat.

Interesting Reading. . .
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