Friday 1 May 2015

Living the High Life

For the last few years, April has meant chocolate binges, the eventual melting of the central Alberta tundra, and intense pangs of jealousy as the entire Canadian distance running contingency posts gorgeous photos of training runs and exploration in Arizona on all avenues of social media. You see, it’s very in vogue to go to Flagstaff, AZ for an altitude camp for a few weeks in the spring, and this year I finally got to join in on the fun!

Flagstaff is situated at an elevation of 7000ft which is no joke. For reference, the elevation of Banff is a modest 4800ft. There are a few cities in America that are that sky-high, but Flagstaff is unique in that the town of Sedona is only 45 minutes away and much lower, meaning that we can live up high but travel down for a few of our more intense workouts, making them better quality. Many endurance athletes capitalize on this situation, and it wasn’t uncommon to be sharing the track with athletes from Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Sweden, Germany, and all over the USA. 

Why do we bother going to altitude? By purposefully being out of breath for 3.5 weeks, we get some physiological adaptations that can’t be gained at sea level. Initially after coming down, our blood volumes should expand, giving a temporary performance boost. Altitude also causes a natural increase in the production of EPO – a hormone responsible for red blood cell production. Since it takes time for red blood cells to be produced, our red blood cell concentrations should be boosted a few weeks from now. In theory, both of those adaptations will make us into superhumans for the upcoming season!

Lanni Marchant and I "twinning" - not planned!
That said, adaptation to altitude is very individual, and it was pretty neat to experience it first-hand. Because the air pressure is so low at altitude, it’s impossible to consume the same amount of oxygen as at sea level which makes activity way more strenuous.  The first week up here was kept pretty easy training wise – my workouts were short with lots of rest, and my easy runs were much, much slower than normal. I paid careful attention to my heart rate during my training runs to monitor my effort after hearing horror stories of athletes accidentally over-training and returning home totally fried. In my second and third weeks, we increased the intensity of my workouts as I became more acclimatized, though my paces and rests were still adjusted, and I took more rest days than normal because it takes much longer to recover at 7000ft – better safe than sorry! I even swapped a few easy runs for hikes at the local ski resort which was great fun. Every morning I measured my resting heart rate, heart rate variability, hydration levels, weight, and some blood parameters for a more objective look at how I was adapting. I was blown away by how hard runs felt some days and how easy they felt on others – everything is exaggerated up here! I personally found easy runs quite do-able, but was seriously sucking wind on shorter, more anaerobic intervals.

Ginger Spice and the Blind Left Turns 
Social media didn’t inflate my expectations – the camp itself was a blast. Flagstaff is a quirky little town with miles upon miles of dirt trails, a distance runner’s paradise! About 25 Canadian athletes from several different training groups were all staying within a 5 minute walk of each other, so hardly any runs, meals, or adventures were endured alone. When not training or recovering, most of our time was spent listening to Geoff Harris, Kate Van Buskirk, and Jason Dunkerly jamming  (they created a band of course!), playing charades, convincing people to drive us to local coffee shops, and completing puzzles while watching entire movie trilogies.

Team Photo!
I was fortunate to have my coach, Mike Van Tighem, up for a good part of the camp, always offering a piece of wisdom or corny joke. Mike came as part of a coach apprenticeship program to learn more about planning and monitoring training at altitude, and it was great having him there.  A huge thanks goes out to the Athletics Canada staff for providing a well-organized month with excellent physio, massage, sports psych, photography, and sports science.

Up next for me is the Payton Jordan Invite track meet at Stanford University. Without fail, some of the fastest annual distance times are run at this meet. It is especially crucial this year as many athletes are striving to run Pan Am, World Championship, and Olympic qualifying standards. I’ll be running the 5000m and can’t wait to take advantage of a deep field, perfect weather conditions, and the early adaptations that should come from depriving myself of oxygen for the last three weeks!

Thanks for reading! Check out some of my favourite pictures from the last month!

Grand Canyon with Casey Atkins - major bucket list checkmark!

Workouts getting wild in iconic Buffalo Park

Downtown Flagstaff
Post-workout selfie!

Can you spot me?