Acclimating to the Death Zone: a Hypoxia Regimen for Cycling

by Sean Hess, Team Rider and Manager for Strackacobra. Visit me on Google+.

The Worst of Both Worlds

Cycling is a beautiful, graceful sport punctuated by bursts of brute force and power. But behind its beauty, strength and grace is a monster.

Like wrestlers and gymnasts we can take weight loss to extreme and unhealthy places. Like NASCAR crew chiefs we can obsess over the tiniest technical details that might give us only a fraction of a second advantage. Our athletes describe our sport done correctly as “suffering” and “misery.”

In short we can take the best of ourselves and make it the worst.

Powerbreathe Classic: Pathway or Pipe Dream?

Powerbreathe Classic and the Hypoxia Regimen: Pathway or Pipe Dream?

There Is Not Enough Suffering

If suffering describes bicycle racing done right then we try to put our hardest races at altitude to ensure there is, if it is possible, even more suffering.

This year is no different with the US National Mountain Bike Championships being held Sun Valley, Idaho.

This is the fourth straight year the championships have been held at altitude. Some purists would argue that with an XC starting at a mere 5,800 feet and topping around 8,400 is simply a let down. After all, the 2009 & 2010 Nationals held at Granby in Colorodo started at 8,000 feet with the course topping out above 9,400.

It’s a wonder the race has never been held at on the Leadville 100 Endurance race course in Colorado, where the elevations routinely hit 10,000 feet.

The Death Zone

On June 22, 2012, GU racing gels held a webinar on the upcoming Leadville 100, with past Leadville champ Rebecca Rusch and Charmical Training Systems coach Dean Golich. Since I am coached by CTS (coach Tristan Cowie) I found out about the webinar on Twitter and tuned in.

One of the questions asked was, “How does a lowlander adapt to the extreme altitude of the race?”

The responses jived with pretty much everything I’ve ever heard or read on the subject.

If you are coming from a low altitude you either try to get there 24 hours before the race, or you try and give yourself two weeks to acclimate. Rusch said even at two weeks you might only be 95% and it might take months to fully acclimate. Golich called days 3-10 (after arriving at altitude) the “Death Zone.”

Rusch described how she felt like she had no pop while in the Death Zone.

I come from Florida and I live at sea level. My personal experience at altitude has been one of extreme suffering (Granby 2009), or not much suffering at all (Sun Valley 2011). In fact, at Sun Valley I couldn’t get myself to suffer. I came into the finish with fresh legs. It was like my engine had a governor on it: no matter how fast I wanted to ride there simply wasn’t enough oxygen pressure to burn the fuel to turn the legs as fast as they were capable of turning.

It occured to me that my two races this year, XC and Super D will be on day four and day eight, right in the middle of the Death Zone.

So while I was still listening to the webinar I started googling “altitude tent rental” and “altitude mask rental.” This is the other bad side to cycling…we’ll spend stupid money on anything that we percieve will give us an edge. No matter that the kids might need new shoes or there’s groceries to buy, Daddy needs an altitude tent for an cat-2 amateur race that no one will ever see and no one but the participants will even care about.

Alas, there was no place in the region that rented altitude tents to sleep in. But there was a website from a company called AltoLab that is selling a device called a Portable Altitude Simulator. But at $189 for the lowest priced model…even if I could get it overnighted…somewhere sense and reason collided in my brain and I backed back into reality.

It’s just an amateur race. And that is why I signed up for Super D in addition to XC. Super D is pretty much all downhill and altitude doesn’t matter, just bike handling.

The Powerbreathe Comes off the Bench

And then a lightbulb came on.

Sitting on my shelf almost unused these past three years was something called a Powerbreathe Classic.

The Powerbreathe was supposed to increase the strength of your lungs, presumably creating a greater ability to use your lung volume and thus creating faster times. I used it as intended during the runup and first part of the 2008 or 2009 season but dropped it. At the time I couldn’t tell if it worked on increasing my speed or not, so I gradually quit using it.

Essentially the Powerbreathe is like breathing through a tube with a restricted airflow…imagine trying to breathe through a tube packed with gauze. The Powerbreathe has nine levels / settings, and each time you increase the setting it restricts the flow even further. Your lungs and the muscles around them (including in your neck) have to work really, really hard to draw a breath.

When the Powerbreathe setting is too high you almost can’t draw a breath. So I figured that if I set it at just the right point…not where breathing was easy, but not where I was suffocating either…I could create something like the air quality and/or breathing experience one encounters when first arriving at altitude. I came up with a regimen for it based on AltoLabs regimen for the Portable Altitude Simulator, to wit, 6 sets of 6 minutes with 4 minutes rest between.

The Hypoxia Regimen

I dubbed it the Hypoxia Regimen and I started that night. My goals:

1) To create a situation of mild hypoxia whereby my body would adapt by creating more oxygen carrying red blood cells.

OR

2) To at least put my body and lungs under stress so that even if they didn’t create more red blood cells, the body and lungs would be acclimated to the stress it would be facing at altitude ahead of time, and thus not be subject to the performance robbing effects of altitude.

OR

3) BOTH

In reality I wasn’t trying to create better performance, just to preserve my ability to perfom against my peers as I would in any other race.

It was an extrodinarily hard regimen to complete. I went from being strong on day 1 one to weak on days 4-5, to then being strong again and getting stronger after day 6.

I didn’t have any oxygen monitors for my blood, any prescribed “breaths per minute” or (like on a powermeter) a set “power” to breathe at for the 6-minute intervals. I just jumped in and had at it. Some sessions I was able to increase the setting to keep it at the balance point, some sessions I had to reduce it.

If nothing else, even if I did not accomplish any of my set goals, at least it gave me a psychological edge in that I knew I was doing everything I could to beat the effects of the Death Zone.

Here’s the workout as completed. I’ll do a follow up with results on this just to let you know how it turned out.

Hypoxia Regimen

Friday, June 22, 2012 (13 days before XC race, 9 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: have that kind of tingling you get when you are tired behind the ears on the back of the skull. Started light and worked up to 2-2.5. Felt short of breath when I went to bed.

Saturday, June 23, 2012 (12 days before XC race, 8 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: have that kind of tingling you get when you are tired behind the ears on the back of the skull. Started at and worked to 3. Felt short of breath when I went to bed.

Sunday, June 24, 2012 (11 days before XC race, 7 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: have that kind of tingling you get when you are tired behind the ears on the back of the skull. Started at 3, but had to go down a bit. Level 3 felt a bit like suffocating. No longer feeling short of breath in bed. Some phlegm build up.

Monday, July 25, 2012 (10 days before XC race, 6 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: tingling starting to go away but still there in background. Started at 3 and dropped immediately to 2. Tried to go up a level but could barely manage 2.5 for one of the sets. Some phlegm build up.

Tuesday, July 26, 2012 (9 days before XC race, 5 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: Hit the wall. Started 2 and actually dipped into the 1s. Lungs are tired. Is this what day 5 at altitude feels like when training? Maybe this is working? Some phlegm build up.

Wednesday, July 27, 2012 (8 days before XC race, 4 days before altitude)
Powerbreathe 6 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 36 mins breathing.
Comment: Starting to feel a little strong again. Started at 2 and was able to work my way up by quarter turns to 2.5. Hard work but I was starting to handle it. When it feelt like sucking my eardrums into my skull I backed off. Some phlegm build up but not as much as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.

Thursday, July 28, 2012 (7 days before XC race, 3 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 5 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 30 mins breathing.
Comment: Muscles on side of neck beneath ears on both sides sore this morning. Starting to taper. Level 2 felt easy…this after getting home late from chaperoning a trip down at Disney. Moved up to 2.5 and it was a good balance of just being hard enough to pull a long breath without hitting that feeling of suffocation. Some phlegm build up.

Friday, July 29, 2011 (6 days before XC race, 2 days before altitude).
Powerbreathe 4 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 24 mins breathing.
Comment: Continue taper prior to altitude. Neck muscles below each ear on each side, and lower towards the base of the neck both a bit sore…was probably due to going harder yesterday and not much rest night before. Kids running around house distracting while trying to breathe…they call it my “Darth Vader Mask.” Started at 2.5 and dropped to 2.25 for last three intervals.

Saturday, July 30, 2011 (5 days before XC race, 1 day before altitude)
Powerbreathe 3 x 6 mins, 4 mins rest between. Total 18 mins breathing.
Comment: Final Day. Finished taper.

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