The Hypoxia Regimen: Acclimating to the Altitude Death Zone, Results

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

Sean Hess of Strackacobra / St. Augustine Team Marshalled for the XC race at US Mountain Bike Nationals

Lined up for the XC race

Last time I posted about something I dubbed the Hypoxia Regimen to help me get pre-adjusted to altitude.

Pathway or Pipe Dream?

To recap, I live and train at sea level, and I had to travel to Idaho for US Mountain Bike Nationals. I used a breath training device called a Powerbreathe Classic in intervals in the 10 days before I traveled in order to try and put my body through the oxygen stresses it would face at altitude. Like all intevals, I hoped it would create an adaptation so when I arrived at altitude it would be like day 11 at altitude instead of day 1.

My goals were to:

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.

Results

As far as my goals of creating more red blood cells, I have no idea. I had no way to measure the oxygen content of my blood while doing the regimen or after I was off it. I stated the goal because I thought that would be the result if it really did work.

As far as the second goal, creating the stress and/or adaptation to altitude ahead of time, at least as far as I’m concerned the regimen worked for me.

From the moment of my first practice to my last race I always felt like I had strong legs and lungs. In the Super D race where I had the luxury of going as hard and fast as possible (as opposed to the XC race where I tried to keep a steady, consistent cadence), I was able to go absolutely all in and pin it to the max. I don’t think I could have went that hard or got as much out of my engine as I did if I weren’t acclimatized.

But then there’s the finish results to consider as well. Second to last in the XC, bottom third in the Super D.

In XC I was with the group until the ground tilted up. I could match the gear of my peers but I couldn’t match the cadence. My perception during the race was that altitude was not a factor. What I thought was a factor was the 1-hour plus climb on the double then singletrack…something I simply physically could not train for. I’ll put it another way, if my competitors all regularly compete in races where the climbing can be 1-hour plus, they have an advantage over me where I don’t. However, if they were to come to some of the races in Florida or Georgia, where I race, and where the contests are something like power intervals repeated over and over for the course of 18-20 miles, then I would have the advantage because their muscles wouldn’t be used to that type of climbing adaptation.

The Super D race convinced me that I did reach acclimatization early using my Hypoxia Regimen. I was able to go all out, 100% on the starting hill climb before the downhill and I nearly caught the two riders who started ahead of me at 1:00 and :30. I went gratuitously over my own redline and was able to sustain it for as long as I needed to get to the top of that hill. My final position in the race had more to do with having only once ever dropped 2,000-plus feet in a race in a single shot (and that other time was three days earlier in the XC race).

The Hypoxia Regimen, while I felt it worked for me, is not something I could do or would do except once or twice in a season. It was a miserable, hour-long series of oxygen deprivation intervals for 10 straight days. In the future I might do it for a big race if I thought it would give me an advantage for a big climb. Or, I would do it if I ever have to compete in a race at altitude again.

But otherwise, never again.

If you ever try this, I’d love to hear your thoughts, experience and perceptions. Just email me at Sean@Strackacobra.com.

Diary and comments (after arriving at altitude):

Sunday, July 1. 1st day at actual altitude (Salt Lake City), 4 days before XC race (10th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Arrive at Salt Lake City prior to travel to Idaho. Notice no change due to altitude. Bad headache after going to sleep, but believe this was due to travel stress and little sleep the night before with a long day riding in planes, with kids.

Monday, July 2. 2nd day at altitude (SLC), 3 days before XC race, (11th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Train on the Pipeline Trail at Mill Creek Canyon in Salt Lake City. Trail sits above 6,000 feet. Parked at winter gate, rode paved section up to Pipeline drop-in at Elbow Creek Trailhead to get a nice, slow warmup. Legs fresh and lungs strong. No shortness of breath…but that’s to be expected at the 24 hour point.

Tuesday, July 3. 3rd day at altitude (SLC), 2 days before XC race, (12th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Still good. Lungs strong, legs strong. Did a 45 minute recovery ride in Mill Creek Canyon, 20 mins climbing on paved road in granny/granny to keep the pedaling light, then dropped back down on singletrack to the parking area. Only issue? Hamstrings a bit tight starting out.

Wednesday, July 4. 4th day at altitude (SLC to Sun Valley, ID), 1 day before XC race, (13th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Travel day, nearly six hours (with stops) in the car (kids). A short practice with a few laps on last year’s prologue lap, including the short steep climb to the final downhill finish. Lift ticket office closed (don’t realize I already have a lift ticket in my registration pack), so I don’t practice downhill sections. Lungs strong, legs strong. Everything good.

Thursday, July 5. 5th day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID), XC race, (14th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Finished 22 of 23 in 2:16. I never got the sense that altitude was a factor (as in past years). I never felt short of breath. Had good, strong lungs. When there was a steeper section or hard pitch I could dig deep, and recover fast. I think it really came down to something you simply can’t train for in Florida or even in the East: a 1-hour plus singletrack climb. My leg muscles and muscle memory simply weren’t developed enough to do it quickly enough. I passed plenty of riders out of class, just was near the bottom in my own class. As a side note, a guy I’ve raced against in SERC this year, Steve Mace, finished 13th in 1:59…but he came up to Colorado two weeks ago, did a race in the Mountain States Cup, and was acclimatized. At Ducktown in Tennessee he finished in 1:44, and I finished in 2:01…roughly the same gap between us. Assuming our gaps would stay the same, we were either both acclimatized or neither of us was acclimatized.

Friday, July 6. 9th day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID). 2 days before Super D race, (15th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Rested all day; Super D practice rained out by late day lightning storm. Went to see the movie “Brave” with my daughter.

Saturday, July 7. 10th day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID). 1 day before Super D race, (16th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Rested most of day. Did some driving outside Ketchum, and a very light and slow hike with my 2-year old son. Did one run on the Super D course, flatted early and had to retire for 2nd run due to no extra tubes (and didn’t want to hike down in darkness if I flatted again). Bonus? Got to see Adam Craig run the course up close (he passed me). Those youngsters hit motorcycle speeds on the fireroad section of the downhill.

Sunday, July 8. 11th Day at altitude (Sun Valley, ID). Super D race, (17th day after start of Hypoxia Regimen).
Comments: Finished 21st of 27 in an open class. First part of race featured a .5 mile – .75 mile climb starting from the Roundhouse at 7,800 feet. Absolutely pinned it and could dig as deep and as hard as I wanted to. I think altitude was a factor in the sense that the start was pretty high and it made things more difficult, but from an acclimitization stand point my perception was that I went as hard as I was physically able without leaving anything on the table. I went so hard I was literally sucking air like a ’76 Torino with a bad vacuum leak when I hit the top of the climb, completely all in. I nearly caught the rider 1:00 and :30 seconds ahead of me at the top of the hill where the downhill section started. As for placement in the race…it was my second ever Super D, and having never seen speeds like that on a downhill, I think I did okay.

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