The science behind Cannondale’s altitude training camp, explained
If there was a moment that reinforced how high the Cannondale team hotel was, it was looking beyond the forest and seeing a landscape of clouds below. The road end was still several kilometres away, the air was still thinning, but we were already above the blanket of vapour which had darkened Tenerife an hour beforehand.
Staying in the Parador Canadas del Teide is, at 2,200 metres, more than high enough to spark off the altitude effect. For this writer, the first hour spent there coincides with a slight dizziness, and some of those staying in the hotel experienced several days of disrupted sleep.
Riding to and from the summit imposes bigger demands, of course, not least because of the extraordinarily long climb to the top.
Altitude training has been used by athletes for many years in a bid to boost performance. While it is difficult in the short term, hampering performance, over time the body should adapt. Exercising and staying in thin air prompts the system to become better at handling lower levels of oxygen.
One adaptation is for the body to generate more red blood cells, but there may be other effects too.
Sebastian Weber is the Cannondale team coach and was at the recent training camp. At the end of a day where the riders did six and a half hours on the bike, he explained how the system reacts.
“The first few days are especially difficult as guys need to adapt,” said the German. “That period is really about acclimatisation to that altitude. You really have to be careful. The riders are prone to getting a little bit sick, especially with upper respiratory infections as you lose more water out of the body.
“You have to drink more. We also cope with that using humidifiers in the hotel room. Your carbohydrate combustion is also much higher, and in the beginning you have to be very careful with the training intensity.”
Simon Clarke is a new signing to the team, moving to Cannondale after four years with Orica GreenEdge. He has trained at altitude multiple times in the past, first going to Tenerife when he competed for the 2011 season with Astana. He has returned every year since.
“It is super tough,” he said, talking about those initial effects. “We are over 2,000 metres here, 2,200. So you definitely need a good four or five days to get accustomed.
“You even feel it just breathing and sleeping. It takes getting used to, even if you have been here many times. After a while it gets easier. That just proves the effects of the adjustment that the body makes to deal with that altitude and, hopefully, that helps with better performance when we go back down.”
For Weber, approaching the camps methodically is crucial. He believes that one of the most important considerations is accepting that not everyone is the same, and reacting accordingly.
“You have faster adapters and some slower adapters,” he explained. “And you have guys who adapt totally differently at different altitudes. So some guys react a little bit at, say, 1400 metres and then a little bit more when you go higher. Some other guys don’t show a lot of reaction until 1500 metres, 1800 metres, then all of a sudden you have a really big change in performance.
“In terms of training, you have to make sure that you know that and that you adjust the training intensity based on their sensitivity to altitude.”
Getting things right is crucial. Push too hard, too early and the system can flounder, affecting the gains.
Responders vs non-responders
Once of the riders who was at the camp was the New Zealander Jack Bauer, who has been with the team since 2012. He told CyclingTips that he struggled in the past on altitude camps and was concerned when the team said that it wanted him to go to Tenerife.
“The first time was years ago in Spain when I just started road cycling. I was chucked in at the deep end and it didn’t go so well. The second time was 2013 when we went up to Sierra Nevada between the Dauphine and the Tour de France.
“We were coming out of a very difficult Dauphiné – Rohan Dennis was with the team and was in yellow for a bit of the race, so we were doing a lot of work.
“Straight after that I went up to Sierra Nevada, which is at 2,400 metres. We trained hard, we came down, we started the 2013 Tour in Corsica. I never felt good training that time at altitude and I didn’t feel fresh in the race.
“Because of that, I was a little bit dubious about getting sent back up in February.”
The key, this time around, was to be a lot more careful about things.
Bauer said that one key difference was that Weber was with the team this time around. Being at the camp and guiding the riders through the adaptation period is crucial.
“In the first days we don’t do any intensity,” he explained. “We stay up here or we go a little bit down, but all the power zones are really the low zones.
“After that, the rule of thumb is the higher you go, the lower the intensity has to be. So if you want to do what people want to call quality work, in reference to high intensity stuff, you have to go down to an altitude where they don’t show any reaction to altitude.
“For most of the guys, to be on the safe side, that is below 1000 metres.”
Bauer stated on Sunday that he was still tired from the camp, but that his experiences were much better than at the other two he had previously been on. He was optimistic that after a little longer adaptation, he would be stronger as a result of the way things were done.
For Weber, taking a very structured – and cautious – approach is what will make the difference between a good camp and an ineffectual one.
“If you go ten years back and you are looking at people talking about responders and non-responders to altitude, it now seems like the non-responders are just people who are more sensitive to altitude. They react that way, and then they train too hard.
“My take is that almost everybody can have a benefit from training at altitude and be a responder if the training is easy enough.”
“Almost nobody monitors athletes’ assimilation to altitude”
Iñigo San Millán is a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Director of Sports Performance at the college’s Sports Medicine and Performance Centre. He previously worked for teams such as Saunier Duval and Garmin, and has considerable experience in dealing with altitude training.
He echoes what Weber said, believing that monitoring athletes who are working at altitude is crucial. He said that this is very rarely done and, because of that, some athletes have no benefit or even show a deterioration in form.
“Here in Colorado we have tremendous amount of experience with altitude and have seen athletes showing up with a 45% of haematocrit expecting to get up to 48% three weeks later. However they actually left altitude with 42% plus extensive muscle damage.
“Almost nobody monitors athletes’ assimilation to altitude. This is vital so they can start seeing which athletes adapt correctly and which don’t; with the latter, the workload has to be re-adjusted.”
Millán states that he usually tests athletes on their first day at altitude, and again five to seven days later. Even at that early point big variations can be seen, with some showing a gain in haematocrit while others are moving in the opposition direction.
He questioned the past approach of others such as the Australian Institute of Sport.
“It was funny that several years ago at the American College of Sports Medicine congress, the AIS did a huge, highlighted keynote speaker presentation on all the data obtained over 20 years regarding altitude training and the benefits.
“They showed athletes with all kinds of length of time and different altitudes. The conclusion was that benefits of altitude training were not conclusive as the data didn’t quite show it.
“However in my opinion, the reason for the conclusions from their study not being conclusive is that the AIS didn’t do any kind of training and workload monitoring.”
“Altitude training is not only about the immediate effect”
Millán’s example shows that much is still to be learned about altitude training. This includes how it works, what factors can boost its odds of doing so and, also, how long the effects last.
Current thinking suggests that the benefits persist for approximately three weeks after the end of the period at altitude.
This is reflected by the changes to blood profiles, but both Weber and Millán suggest that there are likely other factors that persist for longer.
“The classic approach says that it is three to four weeks,” says Weber. “But this approach comes from other sports like swimming, who do a lot of altitude, or from runners. There is something unique to cycling which is what I think people often forget about.
“Let’s take Pierre Rolland. He is riding the Tour de France and is doing mountain stages where the finish is about 1600, 1700, 1800 metres. So just imagine if his sensitivity to altitude results in a power loss of – let’s say – ten percent, which is a common figure at altitudes above 1600 metres. What happens to him in the decisive last three kilometres of a mountain top finish in the Tour de France is he will lose power, experiencing a decrease in performance simply because of altitude.
“What I am trying to point to is for a lot of GC guys, altitude training and cycling is not about only the immediate effect of higher performance a couple of weeks later. It is also about getting a desensitisation to high altitudes. Basically, one reason why you come back again and again and again is about trying to lose that sensitivity for altitude for the GC guys.”
Weber said there is a lack of scientific knowledge to explain exactly what this mechanism might be. A shift in the mitochondria closer to the outer membrane of the muscle cell is one possible reason he proposes.
Millán suggests another.
“We don’t know the molecular mechanisms yet but what I see is that people who live at altitude tend to do better climbing at the high climbs of the Tour de France. Also they adapt faster than others when they return to altitude. That I can clearly see.
“There is must be some form of ‘memory’ mechanisms for altitude adaptation that the body has developed. HIF-1 [Hypoxia-inducible factor 1-alpha] is a transcription factor involved in multiple mechanisms responsible for altitude adaptation and response. It is quite possible that HIF-1 responses are better in people who have been previously living at altitude.”
Whatever the science, Weber is convinced there are long-term benefits for the riders. Those riding the Giro d’Italia will return at least once more before the race. Depending on race schedule, the Tour riders will likely also have spells in thin-air environments.
If Weber and Millán are correct, doing such training in closely-monitored conditions should have clearer benefits than a haphazard approach. The outcomes of the Cannondale team’s key targets will show if that is indeed the case.
Testing in Tenerife
Rewind the clock back a couple of decades and altitude camps were less common. The use of EPO and the lack of a test for it meant that riders could receive an illicit boost to red blood cell levels without having to leave sea level.
Over time tests improved and, in the late 2000s, the addition of the biological passport made it more difficult again to seek an illegal edge.
Teams began to spend more time at camps in places such as Tenerife. However haphazard anti-doping testing still led to concerns that some might be using the high-altitude stays to trick the bio passport while resorting to shady methods.
More recently testing is thought to have improved. Figures are not available in relation to the frequency of those samples, but Tenerife and other such locations are on the radar of the testers now.
UCI president Brian Cookson and others have said that these areas will be monitored and out of competition samples will be taken.
Doing so was important because of the sheer number of riders who were availing of high altitude training. In addition to the Cannondale team (previously Garmin), the Sky team of Chris Froome, the Astana squad of Vincenzo Nibali and others have been staying in the hotel at Mount Teide in recent seasons.
Being tested is vital, both for our confidence and for their reputations.