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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Preseason High Altitude Training: Base Building or Stage Race?

Earlier this week, our friend Pat Ward wrote about the insanity of Midnight Madness, which is the annual ritual of many college sports teams to practice at midnight on the first official day of the season.  Most of you have probably seen basketball teams jubilantly take the floor at midnight sometime in the middle of October before a packed arena of fans.  While Midnight Madness has become a time-honored ritual for many programs, the tangible costs of sleep pattern disruption can outweigh the soft benefits of team building and motivation.  

This topic got me thinking about the cross country equivalent: the high altitude pre-season running camp. Each year thousands of high school and college runners gather at mountain retreats such as Big Bear, Mammoth Lakes, Flagstaff, and Boone for camps ranging one to two weeks. While I understand coaches’ rationale of camaraderie and exposing the team to beautiful trail running, I'm not sure the benefits outweigh the costs due to the effect of altitude and the group dynamic that turns the week into a full blown stage race.

Natural ice baths for recovery are a camp tradition...But it's not a good sign if your body is getting beaten up before the season begins!

The altitude is most problematic because there is no way around it other than not making the trip in the first place.  Even with an ideal acclimatization protocol, the adjustment period can take at least one to three weeks, depending on each individual athlete’s physiology and prior experience with altitude training.  Most coaches know this information, but the inertia of tradition is strong, thus cementing the preseason altitude camp as an annual ritual. 

During the first week or two at altitude, training should be stress free.  Coach Joe Vigil, perhaps the world’s leading guru on high altitude endurance training, suggests blending easy running with a mix of light cross training activities including swimming, cycling, strength training, and even walking.  Coach Vigil writes in his text Road to the Top: “In almost all cases I have found that after a week of acclimatization, normal training is possible.  I have also learned that the first week is when most athletes make mistakes by training too hard, making each ensuing week more difficult.  Thus, little or no adaptation takes place.”  (Vigil, p.172)  The stress of high altitude is actually less for anaerobic activities such as sprinting and strength training.  However, you probably won’t see many distance running teams driving hundreds of miles just to lift weights on top of a mountain!

Taking an easy week to adjust is in stark contrast to the camp high mileage ritual many teams use.  Part of the thinking is, “We drove all this way, so we might as well get our money’s worth.”  Along with higher miles, many athletes ramp up the intensity for the first time since track season.  Newcomers want to impress the coach by running with the veterans and veterans are establishing pecking order. Runners who didn’t “do their homework” (i.e. put in the base mileage in June and July) must summon their mental and physical reserves to hang with the main pack, lest they experience the embarrassment of getting left behind and (for guys) getting passed by the lead pack from the girls squad.  Long runs often turn into trail races complete with the surges you would expect in the high mountains of the Tour de France designed to break the will of your competitors.  Tempo runs become full blown time trials with high placement supposedly improving one’s opportunity to begin the season in the top seven.

In addition runners are in strange sleeping environments for an extended period and not getting the best sleep possible.  Athletes are removed from their personal nutrition preferences as most teams have limited budgets that force coaches to stock up at Costco, often sacrificing quality carbs and proteins for cheaper processed foods.  Further, unlike the normal school routine in which the kids have nearly immediate access to the training staff for injuries, coaches are often forced to practice a form of battlefield medicine if the school does not send an athletic trainer for the week.  Even if an ATC does make the trip, he or she is often limited by the extraordinarily high athlete-to-trainer ratio.  Not wanting to sit around the hotel or cottages all day, kids are more likely to push through nagging pains when they would otherwise inform the medical staff.  Because the body works harder just to maintain normalcy even at rest, healing becomes a greater challenge than at sea level. 

C'Mon...It's only a week!

“It’s only one week” is a common justification for allowing intelligent training to take a backseat in the name of tradition, but any threat to the athlete’s well being, especially in the preseason should be avoided.  Preseason is the time for building up; not breaking down (this isn’t the NFL in the 1950’s…).  Those who manage to survive the week are perfectly set up to start the school year in a weakened state.  The strongest runners on the team may thrive because they exert themselves less than the rest of the team giving chase, although the top-dogs sometimes pay a price for defending their spots in the pecking order with injuries or poor performance later in the year. 

The smallest injury if allowed to percolate can become a condition that plagues the athlete for weeks, months, or years.  Other conditions (which are often untested and undiagnosed) such as adrenal fatigue and anemia do not onset instantaneously, but threats to the body’s homeostasis can begin during a high stress camp.  With college teams racing nearly every week and high school teams sometimes twice per week, there is very little time for proper recovery to occur.  As school responsibilities add up, kids get even less recovery.  In deciding where to hold preseason camp, coaches should weigh the benefits and costs of a trip to high altitude.  The high mountains in themselves will not wear the athletes down if the team has the discipline to train at appropriate paces in appropriate volumes and not compete on every run.  

In my experience, teams are fresher and less injured when they hold camp close to school or at school, although it would be very instructive to complete a more formal study on this issue.  If a program follows the altitude camp ritual and has a history of getting through their seasons without any injuries or illnesses, then I wouldn’t suggest they change a formula that works.  However, if coaches insist upon taking their teams to altitude yet have a history of missed training during the season, it should be standard practice for thorough blood work and movement screening to be completed both before and after the trip.  Although such monitoring should occur as a matter of course in any program, the margin of error decreases when we add altitude into the equation.  As such, heightened vigilance to physiology and movement is an extra step coaches should take if the preseason altitude camp is to remain an annual ritual.  

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