Cusco Peru, the center of the Incan empire, sits at 11,000’ and over 1 million people live in this amazing location. Normally, for us Americans, we think of a small mountain pass in Colorado being a high elevation at 11,000’. But, for the Peruvians that live in Cusco and at even higher elevation pueblos, it’s normal life. Yet, the locals breathe hard when climbing the stairs, no matter how long they have lived there. One of my clients, Daniel Roura, invited me to race in the Machu Picchu Epic MTB stage race, which is a 5-day stage race around the Cusco and Machu Picchu area, with most stages between 11,000 and 14,000’. I knew it would be incredibly critical to acclimate before the event. How did I do it? Can you do it?
Three weeks before the trip to Machu Picchu, I traveled to Colorado for a week of training and acclimating to a higher elevation. Staying at 9,000’ and then riding up to nearly 12,000 each day for a week was just the thing I wanted to do to begin the acclimatization process and get a possible boost for acclimating to Cusco in just 2 weeks. One of the most important things that you can do when acclimating is to take it easy for the first three days while at a much higher elevation. This means reducing your training intensity to Zone 2 rides and reducing your volume to roughly 50-65% of your normal training load during those first 3 days. It might even be fine to not train at all and allow your body to adjust. During these three days, I rode easy, didn’t push it, and just enjoyed some great relaxed riding up to 11,000’ and took lots of pictures. On day 4, I did a more intense ride and began increasing the total time as well, so that by the end of the 10 days in Colorado, I completed a 9-hour ride over two mountain passes, each up to nearly 12,000’. Of course, I was breathing hard on those climbs, but on that final ride, I passed over 20 “locals” on the classic “Monarch Pass” ride giving me confidence that I had acclimated.
After a hard 10 days of training, it was time for a rest week at sea level and then a hard week of intensity in the week proceeding the trip to Peru. For me, a week of rest is a week of rest. I ride maybe only 3 days during a rest week and really allow my body to recover, heal and adapt to the previous weeks of stress. Most riders don’t rest enough in their rest weeks. Your rule should be to always rest more if you are trying to decide whether to train or rest, during your rest week. This is critical of course for recovery from the previous weeks of training and you need to be able to execute the hard week of training that is coming up! I knew that I only needed one super intense week of training before the trip to Peru, so I wanted maximum freshness to reach the intensity I wanted. The week of intensity consisted of three days exactly the same workout: 3 x 5 minutes at 115% of FTP and 4 x 10 minutes at 100-105% of FTP. This is a great workout to do in your final build week, as you are addressing both the Vo2 and FTP to “eek” out a little more performance.
Once in Cusco Peru, the effect of elevation was immediate as walking up the stairs made me breathe heavily and rapidly. I felt out of shape! Wow! Unfortunately, or fortunately(?), my bike and luggage was stuck in Lima for 3 days, so there was no riding for me! Walking around town, doing a couple of easy hikes up to 11,800’ and generally being a tourist (in the same clothes for 3 days!) was about all I could do. I believe this ended up being a blessing in disguise, as it forced me to rest a bit more, eat some amazing Peruvian food and acclimate without the temptation to go out and ride 3-4 hours a day. Once the bike showed up, I was able to jump on it and get in 3 solid rides before heading to do the “Rainbow Mountain” hike, which was up to 16,000’. I knew these would be a further accelerator to acclimatization and had planned it for the seventh day in Cusco.
Hiking from the parking lot at 14,200 to 16,000’+ at the top of Rainbow mountain was not that hard at all! Pushing the pace the whole way, I ended up with the third fastest time on Strava for the year (so far!). Feeling strong on this day was a real confidence booster as well! If you ever have a chance to visit Cusco or Machu Picchu, be sure to do the Rainbow Mountain hike, it’s worth it!
Tips for High Elevation
At this point, I should mention a couple of additional things that are important to understand and do while at a higher elevation.
- Your FTP will be lower! Depending on the elevation you are riding, your FTP could be lower by a whole lot! If you are at 6,000’ then expect about 10% lower FTP than sea level. If you ride at 10,000’ then your FTP will be down by 20% most likely. It gets worse as you go higher and at 14,000’ your FTP might be down by 40%! So, it is IMPORTANT that you learn your FTP at some different elevation levels to help you with pacing.
- About eight weeks before you go to a high elevation, you should have your serum ferritin levels checked. Your serum ferritin levels need to be topped off, as once you get to elevation, you will be using more iron than normal. If your serum ferritin tests in the bottom third of the “normal” level, I would suggest an iron supplement. I am a fan of Proferrin. Colorado Biolabs, Inc. Vital health products (proferrin.com)
- Beet Doping! Yes, you need concentrated beets! This is a tremendous advantage and makes the difference between struggling and feeling strong at elevation. Beets are high in nitrates and when used in a concentrated form, you increase the nitric oxide in your blood and you can put more oxygen into your working muscles. At sea level, using Beet Elite, increases my FTP 15 watts, and that’s 5% at my FTP of 300 watts! You want to have it working when you start your workouts/event, so supplement at least 1.5hours before the start. You can get Beet Elite on our website. This stuff is magic. BeetElite / HumanN Archives – Shop Peaks Coaching Group
- Eating gels and gummies. It is nearly impossible to eat while riding at a high elevation. There is no way I could have choked down an energy bar. You just can’t close your mouth for any length of time when struggling for O2! So, gels and gummy blocks are critical. I wasn’t even able to chew the gummy blocks. I just had to stick them in the cheeks of my mouth and gnaw on them! Sounds crazy, but it’s true. I am a huge fan of the UCAN gels! These things saved my life. Well, not really, but close! UCAN Archives – Shop Peaks Coaching Group
- Sleep. Staying at a higher and higher elevation can mess with your sleep. I recommend some kind of sleep aid as well. Whether that’s melatonin, valerian root tea or Ambien, pick up something before you go. You will probably need it. Sleep is critical in your recovery.
- Your Heart Rate will be suppressed. Do not be alarmed if your heart rate won’t go up. It will be very suppressed depending on the elevation. My normal threshold heart rate is 165-168 at sea level, but at 11,000’ it was between 147-150. During the rainbow mountain hike between 14,000 and 16,000, it never went over 131 and I was at the limit from 129-131. This is perfectly normal so don’t worry about it.
Machu Picchu Epic MTB Stage Race
After 10 days at 11,000’ and above, the Machu Picchu Epic MTB stage race started, and while climbing is not my forte’ I held my own and finished 27th on the first stage and 3rd for the 50-59 age group, so even though I felt like I was going pretty darn slow up the two major mountains, there were about 60 people going slower! Climbing up the final mountain to the finish (yes, stage 1 was a mountain top finish!), I felt like I was riding so slow and couldn’t believe that rider after rider wasn’t passing me. I continued to pace myself at “sweet-spot” (88-93% of FTP-elevation corrected) and finished relatively strong.
Let’s talk about pacing at elevation. Pacing is critical when at elevation. It is very easy to “blow-up” and go over your threshold with just a little effort. When we ride/train/race at lower elevations, our ability to go above our FTP into zone 5, 6 and even zone 7 is usually very good. We can recover from these intense efforts relatively easy and continue riding near or at our FTP. When you are riding at elevation, you can easily exceed your FTP and not be able to recover from that oxygen debt! When starting a race, a climb, or a hard effort, it is crucial that you build up your power to your FTP and do it in a slow manner, over 5-10 minutes. Starting too hard can be devastating at elevation and force you to have to actually stop riding and recover before you can pedal again! Sneak up on your FTP and then be super careful not to exceed it. Your cadence is also important and while cadence is largely based on your muscle fiber type (fast twitchers tend to pedal slower, and slow twitchers pedal faster), it is still important to watch your cadence at elevation. Riding with a little faster cadence reduces the strain on the muscles but doesn’t increase the strain on the cardiovascular system by the same amount. So, I recommend pedaling with a little less force when at elevation and this will help to keep your pacing under control and manage your respiration rate.
Stage 2 and 3 were both tough stages but didn’t cause too much stress and that’s a good thing as stage 4 was a 25mile climb from 9,500’ to 14,200’! The climb was very gradual and averaged only 3% but that was plenty steep when I got up to 14,200. Since I anticipated it being a 3+ hour climb, I knew I could hold tempo pace (76-90% of FTP) for the entire climb and I also knew that the higher I went, the lower my power would be and the slower I would be! The climb wasn’t all that bad, except for the rain and the cold! By the time, I reached the top of the mountain pass, I was near hypothermic, couldn’t feel my hands, toes or face! The elevation didn’t seem to impact me too much, but the cold sure did! I was excited that I didn’t have any headaches, was able to actually pedal pretty hard from 13,000 to 14,200’ and again finished in 27th place.
The final stage was at a lower elevation from 3,000 to 5,000’ and all of the sudden there were riders around me during the stage that I had not seen before! And they were keeping up with me! I asked them if they were only doing the “3-day” race (stages 1-3-5), but they said no, they had ridden all the stages, but just were not acclimated and finished way behind me. These riders were Peruvian but came to Cusco from Lima (sea level) only a couple of days before the race and every time the road went uphill, they went backwards! I was able to survive the heat and humidity of the jungle stage and finished again in 27th and ended up 3rd overall for the old guys in 50-59 age group.
In conclusion, the answer is yes, you can race at elevation and at very high elevations if you are acclimated! Going to elevation for 10-days about three weeks before can really prime your system and help you acclimate even faster, so I recommend this if you can do it. Otherwise, you should be sure to go early to your event by at least 7 days and more preferably about 10 days. This will ensure that you are well acclimated and ready to race. Follow my tips above as well, using Beet Elite, gels, and a sleep aid if needed. Make sure you have your serum ferritin levels checked at least 6 weeks ahead of time, so if they are low, you have a chance to increase them! In those first 3 days you are at elevation, be very, very careful to take it easy and not ride hard. Just relax for three days, rest a bit and then you’ll be even better for it after. Pacing yourself is very important and becomes quite obvious on that first day you ride near your FTP!
Send me an email if you have any questions about racing/training at elevation or the Machu Picchu Epic MTB race. It’s an excellent event and I highly recommend it. Here’s their website Machu Picchu Epic – Competencia Enduro y XC Maratóninfo@peakscoachinggroup.com