Troubleshooting performance at elevation and training

  • Creator
  • #66494

    I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but based on a recent experience where I struggled with elevation I am curious about the telltale signs of deficiencies in one’s training.

    Here’s what happened: the trip was non technical climbing (i.e a leg workout, not upper body), mainly hiking and a moderate snow couloir. Starting elevation ~8,000ft, topout just over 14,000ft. All well at the start, took it at a conservative pace – no heroics – at 11,300ft or so I felt more sluggish and my breathing pick up, and by 12,5000ft or so I was panting like crazy. The pack was light, and I never felt like the load was crippling or that my legs were maxing out. I just felt that I had to breathe much faster than I usually do at that elevation, and rest more than usual between steps. It felt as if I just couldn’t supply enough oxygen to the legs. Once we summited, turned around and dropped 500ft or so, I felt strong and my legs never fatigued or gave out during the couloir descent or the 12mi hike out. I came back alive and felt tired, of course, but like I could sustain it for a long time. Car to car took just over 14h, distance was 22mi or so.

    This is the 6th year I have been training following Uphill Athlete principles, and there were no signs of poor performance earlier this season, although I hadn’t tried anything that long. If anything, this season (started the training cycle back in September, so it’s been 8mo) I devoted most of my training to base and did not incorporate any higher intensity workouts. I also did not spend much time on muscular endurance through weighted carries, but I did ski regularly to the point where leg burn was intense. I did strength workouts for months that included leg exercises, but kept it at the general strength format throughout rather than shifting to the lower-rep/higher-weight specific strength workout. I also admit to neglecting strength maintenance for the past two months.

    Did I slack off near the end? Did I shoot myself in the foot by focusing on hill/trail running at the expense of strength and muscular endurance work close to my objective? Or could it be that I was having a hard time getting used to the altitude for other reasons? I hate it with elevation brings me to my knees.

    What are the telltale signs of insufficient base, insufficient strength, insufficient high-intensity training and insufficient muscular endurance training?

    Thanks in advance!

  • Participant
    george.peridas on #66495

    PS: FWIW, my partner, who was brand new to mountaineering, charged up the ascent without slowing down, hyperventilating or any other issues. It was an impressive sight. His staple training has been some cycling and fast, unweighted hikes of 5,000ft gain/loss or so, 4.5h duration or so. He said he goes fast, not casually. No strength training or weighted carries. Unlike me, his challenge was the descent. Fatigue set into his legs, and as the hours went by he started feeling it more and more. My staple has been Z1 runs with 1,500ft or so gain/loss, 1h15min long.

    george.peridas on #66795

    A bump for this thread, in case anyone has any insights…

    LindsayTroy on #66981

    How much time did you spend at elevation in training and in previous efforts? My understanding of the science of altitude acclimatization is that it only marginally has to do with fitness and more has to do with genetics/luck. It sounds to my unprofessional self that you were struggling with acclimatization. There are a few things you can do to help, but it would be helpful to know what your history of training/climbing at altitude is

    george.peridas on #67000

    Thanks for the reply, Lindsay. I am no stranger to 14ers and these elevations, but it has always been somewhat hit&miss for me. Different days, different story. I’ve also had climbs where I felt thoroughly spent and debilitated by elevation, only to come back alive less than 1h later and happily break trail in deep snow. The likelier explanation for this one may be bonking?

    For the trip in question, I live at sea level and spent the winter going to/from 8,000-9,000ft each weekend for 4 months to ski. After the ski season ended, I spent 3 weeks of regular life at sea level. For the climb, I went to the trailhead (8,000ft) at 9pm or so, woke up at 4am and got going. We summited at just over 14,000ft at 1:40pm. Not exactly what you’d call acclimatization…

    LindsayTroy on #67010

    I live at around 5,000ft and train at 10,000-11,000ft regularly and find even a 3-4 week break between the end of ski season and the beginning of mountain running season is enough to make me feel like you described. Especially this:

    ” I just felt that I had to breathe much faster than I usually do at that elevation, and rest more than usual between steps. It felt as if I just couldn’t supply enough oxygen to the legs.”

    Sounds to me like poor altitude acclimatization especially since you say:

    “Once we summited, turned around and dropped 500ft or so, I felt strong and my legs never fatigued or gave out during the couloir descent or the 12mi hike out.”

    Perhaps you need to plan a bit more pre-trip acclimatization. I’m not an expert on this but I found this:

    george.peridas on #67053

    Thanks again, Lindsay. 14 days for optimal acclimatization, huh? Unfortunately for us sea-level weekend-warriors it’s usually a race to get to the trailhead in the not too small hours after a long drive to get at least a few hours’ head start… Interestingly, the paper you link does not recommend the fly-in, fly-out last-minute approach.

    I have to agree with you, what I experienced does sound like improper acclimatization. Two things perplex and frustrate me. First, some people who clearly have superior endurance and fitness seem to suffer. In fact, they may suffer more. I’ve been on trips where a highly-trained and super-fit partner struggled more than me. And I’ve seen some of the least-prepared members of a group able to adapt well – without heroics but also without suffering. Second, I don’t understand why sometimes I can adapt well in the same timeframe and others I struggle. Going to elevation regularly definitely seems to help. Being at the tail end of an illness also seems to be amplified at altitude. I’ve been smacked down pretty hard after going high too soon after having some sort of minor illness at sea level. I also wonder how much tiredness and perhaps training tapering have to do with it. Being a working parent, I invariably leave for those trips in a rush, tired and not having had enough sleep in the week prior.

    LindsayTroy on #67066

    Ha yeah, some of the things that are ideal for acclimatization are not ideal for people whose lives are not centered around climbing.

    To your point on fitness and acclimatization, you’re right, the studies show that it’s not linked to fitness but the best predictor for performance at altitude is previous performance at altitude. My google-research has found support for certain dietary things to help, including drinking lots of water when you’re on the climb and beet juice for pre-climb (,blocks%20to%20make%20nitric%20oxide.)

    rich.b on #67096

    As you note, George, reality is not alway conducive to doing what is optimal. All research comes with caveats, which for acclimatising typically includes focus on elite athletes, small study groups, specific altitudes, specific timeframes. The declines in performance with altitude occur pretty much immediately, and day 1 is the already the low point (up to day 3). Fly-in/fly-out is a bit of misnomer, because you have travel to the starting line, which means you are likely well into day 1 or even into day 2. After day 3 there seems to to be the start of a recovery. As noted already, 14 days is the optimal compromise based on athletes needing to move between competitions (although the optimal is a few months) for parameters such as power output and time to exhaustion, but after 7 days you get about half way there (Schuler et al. 2007. Scand J Med Sci Sports). Hydration as Lindsay points out is always considered important.

    When I was going to run in the Alps for the first time – I live at sea level in a low-topography landscape – I spent a chunk of time researching what to do about acclimatising (I work at a uni so have incredible access to research journals), and aimed for one week before race day (partly a good excuse for a family vacation). There were two parts to acclimatising, I believe: one was some adaptation to the altitude (the race finished at 3000 m) and getting a sense of how it impacted me, the second was also mentally adapting pacing to the much longer climbs paired with altitude. It was not only a matter of going from 30 m above sea level to 3000 m, but also from training on a hill with only 47 m of vertical to continuous climbs lasting up to 1000 m of vertical. The point I am trying to get at, is that I found it critical to re-calibrate my pacing and effort and get a better sense of where I felt like I was red-lining and risking a blow out versus what felt sustainable. I suppose settling into your own pace/rhythm might be easier in a race than if on an adventure outing with a partner. And not being paid to acclimatise as a professional athlete, we can only do what reality allows.

    george.peridas on #67152

    Thank you, Lindsay and Rich. I hope one day we will be able to understand better what genetic traits the people who go up to 4,000m and appear unaffected have been blessed with. Then again, I am complaining, but I know people who are floored by altitude at the trailhead (8,000ft) let along venturing to 14,000ft in a few hours.

    That said, I am still interested in a rough troubleshooting guide for one’s training. In other words, what you would observe if you had neglected a particular aspect of your training.

    Do the guesses below sound right?

    – Insufficient aerobic base: poor performance all around, gasping for air, slow pace, legs feel heavy, cannot sustain even a low-intensity effort for long periods.

    – Insufficient high intensity training: inability to step up the pace or cope with steeper grades, crux sections, faster pace for short periods?

    – Insufficient strength training: legs max out on the steeps, difficulty surmounting higher steps, having to work too hard on even less steep sections?

    – Insufficient muscular endurance training: dull muscle ache and fatigue, inability to sustain an effort that doesn’t feel aerobically taxing (i.e. you’re still breathing comfortably and HR is not very high)?

    LindsayTroy on #67255


    I don’t think these are quite that straightforward.

    As we see with people new to uphill athlete, “Insufficient aerobic base” can also appear as people are fast but struggle with endurance. Right? Think about people with ADS. Often its from too much time in Z3 and they can run/hike quickly but maybe dont have much endurance, or are heaviiiily reliant on constant intake of carbs. etc.

    Also, I think high intensity and muscular endurance are probably very interlinked.

    emilieskadi on #67566

    SUPER keen on this topic. I too really seem to struggle at elevation and am looking to do ANYTHING I can to up the fitness so that I don’t have to work as hard when I’m up there (and thereby I can *hopefully* hang on a little longer!). I have found from past performance I tend to really start feeling like poop around 11,000 ft. Which sucks. I can only get to about 8,000 ft on the peaks of mtns right around me, so I can’t really ‘spend time’ at much elevation during training runs or climbs.

    Additionally, I have found that I seem to really struggle to maintain a fast pace going up hill. I’m not built like your traditional runner; I have a LOT more muscle mass and am not as thin as a really competitive person would be. I know I stand to gain a lot by simply dropping lbs and I have accepted certain performance loss due to lifestyle choices and I am active in motor sports that use a bit more muscle mass than your average runner.

    That being said, I would LOVE to figure out the best ways to train to maximize my ability to go uphill fast!

    I have been doing the ME workout of box steps, split jumps, lunges, jump squats. We were progressing them in weight as we went through. I was up to 25 lb dumbbells in each hand which had seemed like a lot to Scott when I scheduled a call with him this spring… I struggle understanding why I can do so much weight in the ME work-outs but I still really struggle to go fast up-hill? Is it just that I have to pack so much body weight that cancels out the strength that I have? It RARELY is muscles that seem to fail me when I’m going uphill or down (although when skiing downhill my quads do fail me but that’s because I’m an ATROCIOUS skier and although I suck I refuse to go to the resort to learn and I continue to go back-country and just suffer the slow learning curve!). Anyway, usually it’s my lungs and breathing that seem to be working the hardest but I know everyone says it’s not my lungs, its my ability to get that oxygen into my muscles!

    Linking the oxygen into the muscles with the altitude issues I think maybe this is where I am struggling. What can I do to work on this?

    Additionally, I just bought a training plan and there was a different style ME work out in it that progressed by upping rounds and lessening time for rests… AND then had me doing the circuit multiple times. We tried this today and it spanked me!! I felt like I was doing fish flops instead of split jumps by the end. I know I want to focus on form and being able to do these work outs cleanly or I’m guessing I’m not getting the training effect I want out of that. So I’m wondering what are some ways to know how to progress the ME workout – with weight or with less time in-between or??

    1. ANY ideas on ways to train to get performance at altitude when you can’t get to altitude. I’m not talking MASSIVE altitude. Just 12-14,000 ft range. I liked where the gentleman above was going with trying to figure out some pointers of where his training was failing him by some of his limitations during performance, those kind of comparative metrics I feel like would be helpful to me!

    2. How should the ME be progressed? with weight? or with taking out time between reps? And how do you progress that time between? Should you be fully recovered HR before each rep – I definitely wasn’t! Or are you getting the right training effect if you are keeping your HR high through the entire workout and finishing like an absolute idiot giving it everything you have just to actually swap feet in air like you should for a split jump!

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