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Elevation Vacation (Or How Not to Cough Up a Lung)

If the highest point near your home is a freeway overpass, that long-planned mountain biking vacation in the high country this season could end up being a tour of misery. Here's how to avoid altitudinal agony — at least a little bit of it.

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Timing — and training — is everything. If you're planning an epic ride or race at elevation, give yourself three days to acclimatize. TO READ MORE ABOUT FLAT-LAND TRAINING TIPS FOR HIGH-ELEVATION ADVENTURES, CLICK ON THE PHOTO. Photo by Seth Lightcap
Timing — and training — is everything. If you're planning an epic ride — like the east side of the Sierra Nevada, above — or race at elevation, give yourself three days to acclimatize. TO READ MORE ABOUT FLAT-LAND TRAINING TIPS FOR HIGH-ELEVATION ADVENTURES, CLICK ON THE PHOTO. Photo by Seth Lightcap

Call it the elevation vacation: A week of riding or maybe even a big race in the mountains; beautiful scenery, ripping singletrack and, if you aren’t prepared, your coughed-up lungs draped soggily over your handle bars.

Yep, bike porn of Sierra Nevada or Rockies high country sure looks sweet on the Internet. And the idea of five or 10 days mountain biking at elevation sure looks doable on paper. But if the highest point in your neck of the woods happens to be a freeway overpass, well then, that long-planned vacation to where the air gets thin could end up being a tour of misery.

There are, however, ways to keep from coughing up your lungs on that first ride in the mountains, which will undoubtedly start with a nasty, 30-minute, switchback-laden climb at 7,500-feet plus.

Mike McQueston had just the vacation planned this past summer. The New Jersey resident’s multi-week trip to California was a go, with the start being a week of mountain biking at Lake Tahoe – elevation about 6,225 feet. The tasty trails he wanted to hit, however, were still 2,000 to 3,000 feet –  and higher – above the lake.

The hitch? McQueston’s east coast training grounds topped out at about, oh, maybe 300 feet. And it’s not like training was his sole purpose in life. He’s a gainfully employed 42-year-old father of two, husband to one and owner of the requisite dog.

In other words, time to spend in the saddle prior to the vacation was limited.

“Definitely thought that I might blow chunks on a climb during the trip,” McQueston recalled. “I did have visions of bonking, and in early thoughts about the trip I just hoped I wouldn’t have a heart attack due to a lack of oxygen” at elevation.

And it’s not like the guy is a total gaper. Over the years, McQueston has raced mountain and road bikes, owned a bike shop and lived for a time in the Rockies. He knows how to ride a bike and train. But with family, work and a set of lungs four-decades old, McQueston knew he was in for some level of suffering.

“Once I knew the trip was a go I trained pretty hard for a month and a half,” he said. “Prior to that my training was spotty; a few good weeks followed by a few bad weeks. Weather, work and kids all conspired against me.”



We asked cycling coach and author Gale Bernhardt about the nutritional steps – on and off the bike – that can be taken to help a person’s performance when exerting at elevation:
• You do want to keep well hydrated at altitude, but don’t overdo it. Have fluids available and drink whenever you are thirsty. Be sure your urine is light straw colored and not deep yellow or orange.
• Some people have decreased appetite at altitude. Be aware of a reasonable calorie intake, especially when exercising.
• Diamox is a prescription drug that helps prevent unpleasant symptoms for many people who may be exceptionally prone to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Discuss use with your doc.
• Limit alcohol consumption for two or three days and minimize caffeine intake.

Lowlanders who venture into the high country to play hard may have experienced uncomfortable symptoms of high altitude. Roaring headaches, nausea or an overall lousy feeling all can set in, according to Gale Bernhardt, a certified USA Cycling coach and author of several books, including Training Plans for Cyclists.

So what’s going on up there? The barometric pressure at sea level averages 760 millimeters of mercury, whereas the barometer reads 510mm at 10,000 feet, Bernhardt said.

“The density of oxygen in the air decreases in direct proportion to increasing altitude,” she said. “In other words, when you take a normal breath of air at altitude you will have less oxygen in your lungs than you would if you were to take the same size breath at sea level.

“Being an aerobic animal,” Bernhardt said, “you know your muscles want and need lots of oxygen to operate a bicycle.”

Once at Tahoe, McQueston felt that need. But a pre-vacation training regime that included pulling his five-year-old son Will on his trail-along during hour-plus rides helped ease the wheeze.

“The kid and the tag-along meant pulling about 70 lbs.,” McQueston said. “It was really a great way to give my wife a break and still get some exercise.”

Those rides came a couple times a week along with a longer, solo road ride to build a base and one hard effort on either his mountain or road bike. McQueston also made use of his area’s stout 18-mile-an-hour headwinds to make up for the lack of any real climbing.

“I ramped it up at the end and rode 11 out of the last 13 days,” McQueston said. “I figured I was good for a two- to three-hour ride [in the mountains], but I was still worried about the climbs.”

And his worries weren’t unfounded. In the first few days of altitude adaptation, cardiac output and submaximal heart rate may increase 50 percent above sea level values, according to Bernhardt.

“No wonder people feel like their hearts are going to leap from their bodies! ” she said.

Ahhh, the mountains: scenery, clean air, headaches

To compensate for less oxygen, the body tries to adjust and occasionally rebels, Bernhardt said.

“The most important compensations include an increase in respiratory drive, which means you breathe faster and may hyperventilate; and secondly, an increase in blood flow at rest and during submaximal exercise.”

Additional responses to altitude can include increased resting heart rate, lightheadedness, headache, insomnia, nausea and loss of appetite. One of the body’s reactions to high altitude, Bernhardt said, is water-dumping to allow the blood to carry more oxygen.

“Frequent urination is a symptom of this process,” she said. “Failure to replace lost body fluids can lead to dehydration, severe headaches and hypothermia.”

To top it off, high-altitude dilation of the brain’s blood vessels, combined with dehydration, can lead to a headache as severe as a migraine. The question then becomes what can be overcome by determination and when is it time to stop?

“Be sure to listen to your body,” Bernhardt said. “If you get to feeling really bad, seek medical attention. Minor altitude illness symptoms can occasionally become life threatening.”

Before getting to that stage, McQueston conceded a few things, like expecting to ride as he did as a 25-year-old ripper. That meant relying more on years of technique versus torque.

“Spin, spin, spin,” he said. “I was not at all afraid to drop gears. My main focus was not to blow my legs and to work on active recovery. I knew that on the long, technical climbs I might need power at anytime to clear the next rocky section so I always held a little back.”

I feel good

Timing, it’s said, is everything. If you’re planning a race at elevation, Bernhardt recommends arriving some 45 to 66 hours before the event to acclimatize.

“By the end of three days,” Bernhardt said, “is just when that person will start to feel stronger.”

And if you’re visiting the high country for some non-race, yet epic riding, give yourself time in order to truly enjoy the setting. Yes, there will be moments of lung-searing suffering, but McQueston rewarded himself at the top of climbs by taking time to look around and absorb the scenery.

Other than buying an oxygen tent to sleep in, McQueston said there was one thing he would do differently on his next mountain biking vacation in the high country.

“I’d spend more time there,” he said. “I felt better everyday I rode.”

Read more about training tips for flatlanders heading to the high country.

Homepage photo of the TransRockies stage race by Dan Hudson. Read more on the 2010 TransRockies.

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