It’s now been a little over 2 weeks since I have arrived back in Anchorage, and needless to say, things have been ticking right along. Since returning, I have planted a “leafy green” garden in hopes that it’s not too late to be able to enjoy it in the coming weeks. I’ve purchased a car so that I can take myself around whenever I need to go and not have to always rely on my teammates to hitch a ride. Anyone you ask here in Anchorage would say, “It’s definitely a car town.” Luckily for me, I’ve got some great friends up here who have been more than happy to give me a great tour of Alaska, and we have started what we call “scenic Sundays” where we get out and do some sort of sight seeing.
(Hunter Wonders and I took a paddle around Eklutna Lake, then went to his house to roast some moose sausage over the fire.)
(Took a weekend trip to Hunters cabin. Did some more canoeing, water skiing, took an argo tour, and picked some berries.)
Then of course I have been training quite a bit. I am just over half way through the 4th “period” or “block” of this season’s training calendar, having just started the beefiest week of said block. In this week there will be 3 intensity sessions stacked among lots of other workouts to log between 26-30 hours for this week. We call it, “the boost week.” It has been very interesting to once again come back down to sea level after having spent 4 months at altitude at home in Colorado, where most training happens at 8000 ft+.
Why sea level? The quick run down…
Most people have heard of athletes going from sea level to altitude for training to get more fit and get other adaptations, so I often get asked, “Why do you want to go down in altitude? Don’t you have an advantage by training up here?” The short answer is, “Yes, and no.” If all of our ski races were held at higher elevations, then yes, I would likely be fine spending the majority of my training time at altitude. However, this is not the case because most of the biggest races on the calendar for me and even World Cup athletes happen close to sea level. Since cross country skiing is largely a power-endurance sport, you have to sustain higher power outputs over long distances to be able to compete. In order to train the body to increase your sustainable power, and even your maximum power output, you need more oxygen. To put it in perspective, here is an example. In a lot of races at sea level, you see athletes from higher elevations who do well in the longer distances, but are nowhere near that level when it comes to shorter races like sprints. Essentially, being from altitude, your body can hold a lower sustained power for a long time, but it doesn’t have the ability to sustain higher power outputs because it is too expensive for the body to train that higher power output when at altitude. Now there are certainly some exceptions, there are some great sprinters that have come from altitude, but this is what generally happens and certainly is in my case.
Low altitude sickness? (whaaaaat?)
Every time I come down to sea level after extended time at altitude, I feel quite strange. When you spend a long time at higher altitudes, your body adapts and your blood thickens as your RBC (Red Blood Cell) and Hemoglobin counts increase. When you come down to sea level, the surplus of oxygen saturates your blood so more oxygen is being carried throughout your body. (this is why blood doping is highly illegal in sport) Whenever I come down to sea level, it always feels like I am always putting the pedal to medal (muscularly speaking) but somehow still flying along with ease.(cardiovascularly speaking) Since your body now has so much more O2 available, you feel like you’re not breathing at all,(compared to altitude) but since you’re able to put so much more power down because of all that extra oxygen you feel it more in your muscles than in your lungs. Essentially, when you come down to sea level, after time at high altitude, there is a much higher muscular stress on the body than there is on the lungs. Here’s another example: When I am in Colorado, most training is distance training and what we call “Level 1.” For me, that means I keep my heart rate between 140-160ish(63-72% max), “Level 3,” or “threshold” is 182-192ish(82-87%max) (numbers based off of physical lab tests). Now, when I come to sea level, Level 1 feels like I am going Level 3 altitude pace, yet my heart rate might only be 120-130. My body becomes confused because my muscles are “hammering” but my lungs feel like they’re taking a nice Sunday stroll. This is where the “low altitude sickness” train hits me and I feel like I’m in a funk, for lack of better terms. For me personally this sometimes shows itself as having a good morning session, then in the afternoon, I end up being unmotivated but not tired and have a harder time getting out the door. I think part of this comes from changing time zones, and training later in the day (9 vs 7:30), so it’s an even bigger change for the body. This year that “low” point hit me about a week after I arrived and luckily only lasted a couple of days. My body has been normalizing to sea level and slowly getting back to a balanced point, but I am still not quite there yet and still have quite a bit of “high altitude juice” flowing through my veins. In the long run, the goal is to increase sustainable power and max power, which, because of high o2 availability, is much easier at sea level than 8000ft.