Mountain Nationals - Altitude Racing
August 21, 2019
By John Wessling
In November of 2018 I decided I was going to go “all in” for the 2019 USA Cat 1 Mountain Bike Nationals. Not knowing at the time the race would start at 9000ft in the beautiful city of Winter Park, Colorado… Living in Los Angeles at sea level made my preparation plan change a lot, but in the end I was able to execute a training plan that worked well for me.
I had not trained for a full season of racing in any sport since I was in college five years ago, where I was cross country ski racing for St. Scholastica. I wanted to race a lot at the start of the year, and luckily for me Southern California is littered with mountain bike races in the spring and summer. The full “season” starts in March, and nationals is at the end of July. Plenty of time to get in race shape. I ended up getting 16 races in prior to nationals, with seven of those races being 1 hour week day races.
I arrived in Colorado exactly 21 days before the cross country race, so I could begin the acclimation process as early as possible. I slept at about 9000ft for three nights, and trained the first three days 60-75 minutes a day, at 50-60% of my max heart rate. I trained super easy, and I probably could have walked next to my bike on most of the climbs. After three days at altitude I did a weekday series race in Steamboat, CO that was 15 miles and 2,500ft of climbing. It was a great lung opener and I could tell I wasn’t at sea level anymore. After the race I took a few easy days and did some light strength, but ended the week with a hard set of 10x2 minute uphill intervals. Again, a few more easy days and then another Wednesday night Steamboat race. This race I felt super strong in and could tell I had adapted to the elevation quite a bit more from the last week. Fast forward to the week of the race; being between 7,000 and 9,000ft had taken its toll, and I decided to head down to Denver (~5000ft) for the two nights leading up to the race. This is what I think made the biggest difference when it came to performing for Nationals. When I was down a little lower in elevation I was able to sleep better and by the second morning I work up, I felt like a new person. Race day rolled around and I knew right away it was going to be a good race for me. One hour and forty minutes later I won my first Cat 1 national championship! I decided to race this completely blind with no heart rate or power, and just go off of feel. It worked out great and I was able to create a gap in the first twenty minutes and hold it until the finish. Two days later I was able to wrap up another championship in the short track race (roughly 30 minutes).
My training take-a-ways that led to performing on race day:
1) Go slow on your easy days.
2) Go slow on your easy days.
3) Go slow on your easy days.
4) On your hard days, don’t hold back just because you’re not at sea level. Find your limits at elevation.
5) Everyone else is hurting at 9000ft.
6) Hydration is a huge benefit to recovering and training at elevation, don’t forget to stay hydrated!
7) Go slow on your easy days.