With the Tour de France on the horizon, it’s time for the world’s best riders to hit their respective training camps. But, asks Campagnolo, why?
In the build-up to the Tour de France, the majority of WorldTour teams – including Campagnolo-using UAE Team Emirates – will squeeze in an altitude training camp after the Critérium du Dauphiné.
The likes of 2020 Tour victor Tadej Pogačar will seek rarefied air in search of peak performance in France.
It’s how it’s been for years. But why?
The aim of altitude training is simple: by exposing the professional cyclist to an environment low in oxygen (more specifically, a lower partial pressure of oxygen – oxygen percentage is constant but the fall in atmospheric pressure decreases the partial pressure of inspired oxygen), the body will adapt by becoming more efficient at transporting and using oxygen.
And as the Tour’s predominantly an endurance event, where oxygen rules, the result is an improvement in performance.
According to studies, training at altitude increases aerobic capacity (VO2max) by 3-8%; lowers heart rate, both at rest and during exercise; elevates levels of myoglobin, the muscle protein; reduces lactic acid build-up; and facilitates greater production of EPO from the kidneys. EPO, or erythropoietin, is like nectar to cyclists as it’s a hormone produced in the kidneys that stimulates the production of red blood cells.
Red blood cells are vital for an endurance activity like cycling as they collect oxygen from the lungs and deliver it to working muscles.
The greater the number of red blood cells you have, the more oxygen you can carry, the harder and longer you can cycle. It’s been shown that you need to head over 1,500m to “enjoy” the benefits of altitude training, though the closer you get to around 2,000m-2,200m, the better.
Too low and the stress will be insufficient for the body to stimulate the increased EPO that the riders are after; too high and training intensity will be too low.
Before the Tour starts in Brittany on Saturday 26th June, Pogačar and UAE Team Emirates will head to Sestriere in Italy. Not only are the roads in good condition, the resort in Italy’s Western Alps peaks at 2,035m – perfect for Pogačar to stimulate increased red blood cells and prime his performance.
But there is a balance to be had. At high altitude, lower partial pressure of oxygen means lower power output.
So a rider cruising along at 300 watts at sea level might require 350 watts for the same speed at altitude. It’s because while their blood parameters improve when it comes to reticulocyte production (young red blood cells) and haemoglobin levels (the part of the red blood cell that carries oxygen), their muscles actually weaken.
Weakening of muscles is down to those low-oxygen conditions, which triggers a rider’s adrenal glands to increase cortisol production. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone, meaning it breaks down muscle for energy.
High cortisol levels cause the rider’s body to morph from a muscle-building state to one of muscle breakdown. It’s why altitude training is such a tricky balance to get right, especially when it comes to duration.
One of the primary physiological adaptations to improve performance is down to increasing blood volume, which takes around 10 days for the body to adapt.
That’s when you might be able to train more intensively.
It’s why pre-Tour altitude camps are often up to two weeks long. The adapting Campagnolo-using professional can work on their climbing ability, boost their physiology and leave a couple of days for speedwork.
LIVE HIGH, TRAIN LOW
Then again, teams can maintain a higher intensity by following a ‘live high, train low’ protocol.
This means that the riders will sleep at altitude but, when it comes to training, they’ll ride down to nearer sea level where the stress is lower and they can increase the intensity.
This idea’s supported by a study by the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) who compared a control group of athletes who lived and trained at sea level against a group who trained at sea level but slept for 23 nights in simulated altitude of 3,000m.
The scientists obtained muscle biopsies from each athlete after the 24-day training period and found that VO2 peak fell for the same amount of work (meaning they were more economical) while muscle buffering capacity increased by 18% (meaning they could sprint harder and longer).
In short, for many, living high and training low is the gold standard.
One further factor the WorldTour teams will have to cater for is nutritional requirements. At altitude, the body works harder, raising metabolism.
Studies have shown that increased calorific needs often comes from increasing carbohydrate intake; in fact, studies into Andean mice (at 4,000m) observed that they metabolized significantly more energy from carbohydrate than fats than mice at sea level. It was down to carbohydrates supplying 15% more energy than fats for the same amount of oxygen.
While professional cyclists aren’t scaling the heights of Andean mice, there’d still be a metabolic shift toward carbohydrate utilization over fat, meaning more pasta and more rice.
Riders will often take an iron supplement, too, to help the red blood cells grab hold of oxygen. Altitude training’s a popular tool in the professional cyclist’s armoury.
But is it one that’ll see Campagnolo-using UAE Team Emirates, Cofidis, Lotto-Soudal and AG2R Citroen Team achieve their Tour goals?
Come Sunday 18th July 2021 down the Champs Elysees, we will find out.
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