Altitude Training with the New Zealand Triathlon Team

The Southern Alps are not only home to New Zealand’s top winter sport athletes. The New Zealand Triathlon team has been traveling to the region for over 15 years to undertake altitude training camps at the Snow Farm Lodge. 

The Snow Farm lodge is situated on the eastern side of the Cardrona Valley, high up in the Pisa Range at an altitude of just under 1600m and a driving distance of 40 minutes to Wanaka, the nearest township. 

Living and doing some training at altitude leads to physiological adaptations that benefit athlete performance. This high stress environment alters the nutritional needs of the athletes; energy and carbohydrate needs are higher, there is increased water loss from the body (loss via the lungs as the air is drier, diuresis) particularly on the first days after arrival, and athletes need high iron stores - due to the lower levels of oxygen and body’s response to build more red blood cells.

Recently, the Triathlon High Performance programme collaborated with the University of Otago to evaluate energy balance in five triathletes (four females and one male).  Weighed food diaries showed that mean daily energy intake for this group was 15.5 MJ (3700 kCal) and that all athletes were in energy balance.  This indicates they all increased their food intake sufficiently to meet the increased demands of being at altitude. 

HPSNZ’s Sport Lead Nutritionist for Triathlon, Ien Hellemans (IH), speaks with Simone Ackerman (SA), one of the Triathlon High Performance squad members, about her experiences at the Snow Farm.

IH: Simone, the New Zealand Triathlon Squad heads to the Snow Farm every summer for a training block of two to three weeks. How often have you been at one of these camps and how has it affected your performance?
SA: I have attended the camps the last three years - 2013, 2014, and 2015. Everyone responds differently to altitude. Some people can race really well the first few days coming down from an altitude training block, while others will race better once they have had a chance to recover from the altitude, about two weeks after. I have found that I have my best races two or three weeks following altitude training. I just feel fitter.

IH: Why do you and the Tri team do altitude training?
SA: Living and doing some training at higher altitudes causes an increase in oxygen-carrying red blood cells. In endurance sports like triathlon, this improves our performance. We are able to get more of a training stress at altitude than at sea level, and can get fitter because of this.

IH: Do you do all of your training at altitude during this time?
SA: We tend to use a live high, train low model when in an altitude training block. We do the majority of our running up at altitude and the occasional stationary bike. However, most of our hard run sessions are done down low because you cannot go as fast at altitude due to the lower air pressure. All of our swimming and most rides are done down low, in part as that is where the pool and roads are.

IH: What are the main challenges compared to living and training at lower altitudes?
SA: It is more difficult training at altitude because of the lower air pressure. You have to run slower than you would at sea level because of this. The other main challenges living at altitude is that it can be more difficult to sleep and you can get dehydrated, so need more fluids.

IH: Do your nutritional needs and practices change during this time? If so, how?
SA: Yes, because of the lower air pressure, living at altitude is more stressful on the body. As a result, your energy expenditure is higher. When I am at altitude I need to eat more because of this. I tend to spread this out throughout the day and have a bit more food with each of my meals. I also take more sports drink and food for longer training sessions. Because of the extra stress of altitude training on your body you also need to be more vigilant with your recovery nutrition. Having foods and supplements, like whey protein, with you becomes more important because it is an easy way to meet your nutritional requirements.  You also dehydrate a bit at altitude, particularly over the first few days. I have to make a more conscious effort to drink water at altitude and add electrolytes to my water to combat the dehydration.