So you put in the time, the miles, the sweat, and maybe even a few tears before your race. You’ve been working hard training for the hills you know you are going to face in your next race. You’ve done more lunges in the past few months than most people will do in their lifetime. Your muscles are primed to take on any incline you come across.
Race day is here and you. Are. Ready. But then it happens. You get going and your legs feel great, but you just can’t seem to catch your breath. Your muscles were trained for anything and everything they could throw at you, but your lungs scream “I surrender.”
This is a tale too familiar for most. While they train for hills, training for altitude is a different story, and it can completely change your race experience. And even when you are not at altitude, your lungs need to be trained just like your legs and arms. Well, technically it is your inspiratory and expiratory muscles that must be trained, but we will get into that.
You have probably heard what going to altitude does to you and maybe you have experienced it already. Sure, moving into a higher altitude location is a great solution: the ol’ live high, train low concept. But I am going to take a shot in the dark and guess that you can’t just up and move to the mountains to get ready for your next race.
Don’t worry though, there is still plenty you can do to prepare. Being from San Diego, at sea level, I know it can be difficult to adapt to higher altitudes. Yes, there are mountains in Southern California I can drive to for training, but just doing a few workouts in the mountains probably won’t cut it either.
This article describes my best shot at the most practical way to train for altitude at sea level, and this training will even give you better control of your breathing to maximize your performance at any elevation.
I want to share with you two simple techniques that you can do anywhere and be better prepared than most for your next race. These simple breathing exercises will help your body use more oxygen effectively and train your breathing muscles to be more efficient. As simple as breathing sounds, most people do it poorly and develop habits that actually hurt their performance.
Inspiratory Muscle Training
First up is inspiratory muscle training or IMT. To put it simply, this is resistance training for the muscles that control inhaling air. These include the diaphragm and external intercostals.
While we may not think about these muscles much, they can be trained like any other muscle in your body. It was previously believed that these muscles were highly fatigue resistant and would not be a limiting factor in performance. However, newer research shows that not only can they be trained, but they limit performance during very high-intensity exercise and very long-duration exercise. Last time I checked, Spartan races were both.
There is some exciting research coming out in this field that suggests that adding IMT to your training can significantly improve performance. One study out of Indiana University found that six weeks of IMT reduced the amount of oxygen inspiratory muscles needed, making more oxygen available for other muscles. Another study from the University of Portsmouth found that IMT improved performance by 15 percent by including breathing drills in a warm-up and daily routine. And one final study even showed that IMT was able to slow down the loss of oxygen saturation when climbing to higher altitudes.
Here is how you can train these muscles. You simply resist air flow as you inhale. There are resistive breathing devices that you can buy for under $50, or you can go the easy (cheap) way: just take a regular drinking straw and inhale through that. Do 30 breaths through the straw, twice a day. This is a simple yet incredibly effective tool.
The second type of drills we can discuss are breath-holding drills. First, let’s get the safety stuff out of the way. You obviously have to be smart about anything involving holding your breath. These should never be done in water, driving, or anywhere else that might be dangerous.
Now hopefully I didn’t scare you off. These drills are not designed for maximum breath holding, but you may get uncomfortable with it at first.
At altitude, you will start to experience lower oxygen saturation in the blood. When this happens for a prolonged period, you will see an increase in the hormone erythropoietin (EPO). This stimulates more red blood cell production so you can carry more oxygen in your blood to make up for the lower partial pressure of oxygen at altitude.
Exposure to altitude will do this. But if you don’t have a mountain to live on, you can practice breath-holding drills. Research has shown that if you decrease oxygen saturation to 91 percent for just a few minutes you can stimulate EPO release by up to 24 percent. To be sure, you can buy a pulse oximeter to check your oxygen saturation, but if you follow these drills you will likely hit this number.
One final note to mention is that when you practice breath-holding drills, you also are allowing your body to adapt to higher CO2 concentrations in the body. This means you are less likely to struggle breathing or hyperventilate when O2 levels are low and CO2 levels are high.
Enough science talk: let’s see what you can actually do to improve your training.
First start with simple breath holds, specifically holding after an exhalation. To do this drill, sit comfortably and breathe for a minute through your nose. Then exhale normally, plug your nose, and hold your breath for as long as you can. Once you need to breathe again, try to get to just nasal breathing as quickly as you can. After one to two minutes of normal breathing, repeat for three to five rounds. Do this once per day.
Once you have mastered this breath-holding drill, we can incorporate movement. This is a great drill to practice as a warm-up for your workout. You are essentially performing the same drill as above but now we add light exercise. I suggest walking to start.
Begin walking at a comfortable pace for two minutes, only breathing through your nose. Then exhale a normal breath, plug your nose, and hold your breath while walking. When you have a strong urge to breathe, unplug and return to normal breathing as soon as possible. Repeat this for 8 to 10 rounds.
This can be performed every day before a workout. I also recommend doing this before a race as part of your warm-up.
There you have it. Yes, it is easier to get these adaptations by living at altitude—just not practical. IMT and breath holding are simple skills you can master that will give you that extra edge on race day so you can train for the mountain without the mountain.
Mike Deibler is an SGX coach and hosts the OCR Underground podcast.
Want to get on the road to the mountaintop? Download The Mountain Series Training Plan as your blueprint.