How To Train For High Altitude Cycling
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Cycling is an amazing form of exercise and has the ability to take you to some amazing places. As a cyclist who has been lucky enough to go to places all over the world, I have learned some amazing lessons. The biggest lesson being to train hard and be prepared for anything.
This couldn’t be truer when it comes to cycling at altitude. When I first did it in the Alps, then later in South America, I was shocked at how unprepared I was and how different it was compared to cycling at sea level.
Since these poor experiences, I have always tried to train properly and prepare for the altitude, and I highly recommend that you do the same when tackling big climbs or planning a high-altitude adventure. In this article, we are going to be telling you everything you need to know by discussing:
- What Is High Altitude Cycling
- The Challenges Of High Altitude Cycling
- How To Prepare For High Altitude Cycling
What Is High Altitude Cycling
High-altitude cycling is when you go to regions where you are up high or in mountainous regions and ride your bike. It offers challenging climbs that destroy your average speed and the best views you can imagine.
There’s a reason why places such as the Alps and Pyrenees are so popular amongst cyclists. They offer an experience you wouldn’t typically get from your local club run. There’s one thing going up a few hills, there’s another thing conquering a mountain.
You will often hear cyclists say there’s nothing like a high-altitude cycle. This isn’t because of the views, the relentless gradients, or even the speedy descents to sea level, it’s about all the challenges that come with being so high.
The Challenges Of High Altitude Cycling
Cycling at high altitudes comes with many challenges alongside the hard work of pushing those pedals down and ensuring you eat enough. Here’s what you need to know:
The first thing to mention is the reduction in oxygen while riding. The higher you get, the fewer oxygen molecules that are in the air. This makes it harder to breathe, more red blood cells are in the system, and it’s difficult for the body to pass that oxygen onto the muscles to help you ride the bike. Altitude affects cycling performance much more than you might think.
The higher you climb, the less oxygen in the air. At 1000ft, I barely noticed much difference, but when you get to 3000ft, 5000ft 13,000ft, you feel so much weaker, and it becomes hard to dig into the pedals like at sea level. The biggest issue you will find is the reduction in power. It will feel just as hard when riding, but the power figures will be much less because of that lack of oxygen.
Altitude sickness is very unpleasant, and the higher you go, the worse it gets. Not everyone suffers from it, and it can catch anyone off guard quickly. You can get symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and even swelling.
If the symptoms get bad, the easiest fix is to get to a lower altitude. If you can’t get to a lower altitude, you need to seek medical attention to ensure it doesn’t get any worse or get to a point where it can be a very serious issue.
Some tablets can help reduce symptoms, but this isn’t something you will want to rely on. It’s better to get used to it naturally and become what they call acclimatized to the altitude.
Cycling at altitude, surprisingly, isn’t just hard on the body. It’s also tough on the mind. I wasn’t expecting how it would feel cycling at height compared to sea level. It’s very different, and it takes time for many to get your head around.
Many cyclists struggle with fear of heights being on roads with big drops at the side. It can cause people to feel moody and not feel talkative. In very extreme cases, people often get confused and feel disorientated.
What many cyclists find when they go to altitude is they find themselves with a lack of motivation. The power output you’re producing is lower, the perceived exertion feels much harder, and you are often very short of breath. It’s tough to be in this place in your own head.
How To Prepare For High Altitude Cycling
Now for the exciting bit. Here’s where we will tell you how to prepare for high-altitude cycling. Here are our top tips for higher elevations!
#1. Consider A Health Check
This probably isn’t where you expected this to start, but it is important. If you feel you could be at extra risk cycling at altitude, you might want to consider having a health check. Speaking to a doctor or medical professional can help you avoid any possible issues you might come across.
#2. Build A High Base Fitness
The next step is to build a high base fitness level. High-altitude cycling is going to reduce your power, so the higher you can get it before you leave, the better. Here are the sessions I recommend focusing on.
One of the best ways of building fitness all around is to focus on doing a lot of base miles. I recommend doing a lot of low-intensity base rides to build your aerobic fitness and help you cycle much more efficiently and also get used to long durations on the bike. I aim for at least two a week, around three to six hours.
High Power Sessions
High-power sessions can build the upper end of your fitness and get you used to producing lots of power for very steep inclines. You might also find with practice breathing heavily you can get more oxygen in the system faster. I recommend at least once a week, but if you can manage two, then that’s ideal.
#3. Simulate Lots Of Climbing
Cycling at altitude often involves a lot of climbing, and because of this, it’s always a good idea to get some practice in. You have two different options here:
Local Hill Repeats
Firstly, you can find a local hill and go up and down to simulate longer climbs. This might be incredibly boring, but your body will thank you for it when you get to very long climbs.
The second option is to get on the turbo trainer and dig in on those super hilly courses. Courses such as Alp Du Zwift are ideal for climbing preparation and will help you work at lower cadences.
#4. Altitude Training
Then we have altitude training, and this is where you have to get creative. Altitude is very difficult to simulate before an event or a cycling holiday where you will be at a high altitude. Here’s what I try to do:
The first step you can take is to find some altitude close to home and cycle there to get used to it. This is obviously but not easy for most. If you are near tall mountains, then it’s ideal training and the best way to get used to high altitude.
Altitude Training Devices
You can also use an altitude training mask while on the turbo trainer to simulate altitude, or you could hire altitude tents and spend some time in them to help yourself acclimatize. Although great ideas and they can help, there are better options than sitting in an altitude tent.
#5. Go Early
Finally, the last thing we recommend doing is to go to high altitude early and spend a day or two acclimatizing by doing short rides before tackling huge mountains. This is the most natural way to enjoy altitude and the easiest on the body.
In many cycling races I have participated in, which are high in the mountains, I used to go a few days early to spend time at high altitudes to get used to the feeling. Then, when the race came around, I was ready to go and felt much better than just turning up.
Many cyclists who plan on big adventures often do an altitude camp. This is where prior to an event they go away for a few days for altitude training. Altitude camps help the body acclimatize and also mentally helps you process what you’re feeling.
A Final Note
Cycling is a lot of fun, especially when it comes to being in the mountains. Altitude is something that is definitely worth preparing for. We hope you enjoyed our article and are now ready to take on those steep, long, epic climbs.