The beast awaketh

With winter’s jaws closing around, storms’a brewin’, the cold creeping, the bones creaking, the last of the mild autumn days gone and their scarlet-ceilinged canopies now barren, revealing the dark sky above, it is now the time to get back on the bike and begin training.  It doesn’t make much sense, but so it goes.  Whoever thought the race season should end in summer and begin in February must have lived in the south of Spain.  Wouldn’t it be smarter to start the race season in April, end it in November, take December off, and start training in January when the end of the winter is at least within sight?  Yes it would be smarter, but I’m not complaining.

It’s a grand feeling to be riding again.  A grand feeling indeed.  I like the word grand because it signifies that I’m too intellectual to use the words “good” “great” or “cool,” which is true; I am too cool to use those low-class words.  What brings on this sudden class clash in me?  Answer: I’ve inherited two wool sweaters–the utmost necessities in high society, especially at this time of year.  Yes, one is too small and the other too large, but I still wear them as if they were strangulating turtle necks, hold my head high and my nose turned up at the dirty, lawless, uncivilized masses at Safeway while I pass by on my way to Whole Foods…to eat the free samples.

I’ve been in Boulder for two weeks now, which marks the date I began my winter training.  I’ve ridden more than I had originally planned, but exactly as much as I originally wanted.  The first week came in at a cool 17 hours, the second week being 20.75 hours (including some hours from a hard hike).  I’ve held myself back further than I ever have, starting my training as late as the second week of November.  I’m proud of myself, and can see that delaying the start this year will only mean that I’ll be fresher later on, since I’m already hitting fairly good power numbers even if the altitude isn’t taken into account.  It feels grand to smash the legs again, and even grander to smash my riding buddies’.

I’ve been reading up on a lot of altitude studies lately.  I don’t trust any of them, since they all contradict each other.  Actually, if there are two contradictory studies, I guess I do trust one of them, I just don’t know which one.  What I do trust is my own judgment. I already notice a significant change from the first week I was here to the second.  The first week, especially the first couple days, was rough.  250 watts felt like 350.  Now 250 feels like 280, which is still off but not nearly as bad.  Some of the benefits of training at altitude and some of the ways your body deals with altitude:

Upon the first few days:
-Erythropoietin (EPO) production dramatically increases, telling your body to produce more red blood cells, though it will take much longer for those red blood cells to mature and be of use.
-Hyperventilation and increased cardiac output (breathing and heart rate increase).
-Blood plasma decreases, increasing the ratio of red blood cells to plasma. The reason for this is that it will make it easier on your now over-stressed heart to pump that blood throughout your oxygen-starved body.

Within 3-4 weeks:
-Hematocrit (% of red blood cells to overall blood) rises due to maturation of red blood cells. I’m not sure how much, and it really depends on the person and the altitude.
-Increased number of muscle capillaries help with oxygen transport.
-Blood plasma levels begin to rise back up to what they were before you pissed it all away.
-The buffering capacity of muscles (to clear waste such as H+ ions) is improved. I’m not completely sure what the mechanism is.

Within months:
-An increase in mitochondria and myogloban help with the metabolic efficiencies that are caused by the strain of transporting oxygen to muscles at altitude.
-Lots of other stuff that I don’t understand.

From what I’ve heard people out here say, it takes four months to become fully acclimated. That’s good, since I’ll be here for 4.5 months.

I just found out why the best effects of altitude training only last 3-4 weeks once you come down to sea-level. The typical red blood cell has a life span of about 2-3 months in a hard-working athlete’s body (much shorter than a sedentary person’s blood cell life of up to 4 months). So shouldn’t the benefit of having extra red blood cells help you for 2-3 months, not 3-4 weeks? They would, except for the stupid fact that your body doesn’t like all the changes that were made living up at altitude. It only made those changes because it had to, and now that the living is easy again down at sea level, it wants to go back to the way thing were…ASAP! Within 3 weeks those excessive new red blood cells made up in the mountains will have been pissed and pooped away on purpose, making things easier on your metabolic system. Now your body can sit fat and happy once again, working only just hard enough to keep you alive. Damn lazy POS body!

One thing that I’ve come to believe is that living at altitude is not the biggest contributor to those physiological improvements up above. I think that training at altitude is more important than living at it. This comes from my own experience. The Japanese believe this too, and employ live-low train-high practices that they say work.

The opposite (the live-high train-low method Spencer and I employed last winter up at Big Bear) did not seem to work. Two things that might have messed it up were that we weren’t living high enough (6,700 ft is much lower than the recommended 8,000 feet) and I also got sick right before racing, so any benefits I might have received from it were negated by being sick. The “stress” of driving up and down the mountain to train every other day did not seem to come into affect though, as stated by many studies. I didn’t feel any more tired from that than a regular day of training. My other experience with live-high train-low comes from sleeping in an altitude tent off and on for two years. My blood values were never changed by the altitude tent, despite sleeping at 12,000 feet for weeks and weeks. I later learned that while EPO serum levels do increase upon the first signs of lack of oxygen, it won’t do enough to make new red blood cells unless you regularly spend over 12 hours a day in it, and 12 hours is the bare minimum for red blood cell production to increase. This basically means that altitude tents won’t work. A nitrogen house (a house made into an altitude tent by sealing off leaks and pumping vast amounts of nitrogen in) might be another story, since you can spend all day in it and even do intervals inside on a trainer if you wanted to (though that wouldn’t be considered live-high train-low anymore). I can’t count out live-high train-low for good, but for now I’ll admit that it doesn’t seem to work like the “experts” say it does. If I really want to see if it works I need to find an 8,000-foot mountain to live on for a month.

From my five weeks spent training and racing at altitude in 2010, I can definitely say there was a HUGE improvement in my fitness. Although I never had my blood values checked (idiot!), I know that it was the altitude that made me fast. It showed with good results and good power numbers when I came down to race at sea level. Hopefully I can replicate those gains again this season.

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