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Guest Post: Sleeping My Way to the Top

Note from Ray: When up and coming ITU Pro Triathlete and friend Lindsey Jerdonek  approached me about finding an altitude tent for doing a product review in preparation for her first ITU World Cup race, I immediately thought it’d make for an awesome guest post.  Enjoy!

This Sunday I’m racing my first ITU Triathlon World Cup in Guatape, Colombia. I’ve done smaller ITU (draft-legal Olympic distance) races this year and it’s time to step up to the big leagues of the ITU circuit. I’m excited to race a slew of World Cup medalists who appear on the start list. It’s my first time to South America, too, and I’m traveling alone. No hablo espanol. Wish me luck.

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After already committing (in my mind) to this race, I learned that Guatape is at altitude. That gave me pause seeing as I live at sea-level in Washington, DC. The race is held at 6,200 feet (1,890 meters), which is 1,000 ft higher than Boulder’s elevation. When you go to higher altitudes, there is less oxygen content in the air, which impedes your ability to swim, bike and run.

I’ll provide tidbits about competitions at altitude from the book Lore of Running, authored by Tim Noakes, MD:

“The fourth absolute of altitude competition is that in events lasting longer than 2 minutes, athletes who live at sea level are always at a disadvantage when competing at altitude against athletes who live at altitude… the sea-level athlete should compete either immediately upon arrival at altitude or only after living at the altitude for three or more weeks. The worst time to compete at altitude is within three to six days of arriving” (pgs. 578-9).

Yikes. Knowing that I MUST arrive in Guatape three days before the race for the race briefing, things looked grim. Dr. Noakes suggests two options in preparing for altitude competitions:

1) Live and train at altitude

2) Train at sea level and live at altitude

I’m not in a position to seek higher ground so # 2 became my only option. My coach, Margie Shapiro, tracked down an altitude tent which would allow me to sleep at a higher elevation from the comfort of my DC apartment. Noakes explains why this is beneficial:

“By training at sea level and living at altitude, you adapt to altitude without losing your sea-level racing edge. Theoretically, you enjoy the best of both worlds” (pg. 580).

A concept that speaks to me.

Ken Mierke of Fitness Concepts generously lent me one of his altitude chambers for the two-week period before my departure.  I recognize I will STILL be slower in Guatape, but the idea is I won’t slow down as much.

The User-Experience of an Altitude Chamber

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The altitude tent or “altitude chamber” simulates the oxygen-reduced air of a higher elevation. Ken stressed that I must spend two weeks sleeping in the chamber to acclimatize. This will give my body time to produce extra red blood cells which ferry more oxygen to my muscles (note, I’m not an expert).

When I picked up the equipment, I was startled to see how much stuff there was… the dialysis-machine looking thing in particular.

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How does a single, carless, working woman get all this stuff from Point A to Point B? I asked my friend Sean to do the heavy-lifting and driving, and financed dinner for the services rendered. Am I being clear that this car belongs to Sean, as do the garden hose, aero helmet, 42 lb bag of kitty litter and the kitty travel case used to anchor the oxygen generator in the back?

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My roommate, Freya, overjoyed at the sight of me bringing more weird triathlon things into our apartment, offered her assistance with the tent setup. I always manage to tackle the small projects when I invite guests over (or blog for Ray), like mount this picture…

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Good enough. With two helpers, I delegated the task of photographer to myself and watched them get to work.

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Uh oh, the mattress pillow top is too plush and won’t fit in the tent.

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Since the tent would be on top of the mattress, we put the mattress on the floor, the box spring against the wall and booted the bed frame to the balcony. How do people with a significant other get away with this?

The tent was good to go, but we didn’t understand how the narrow, red vessel fit into the picture.

It was too late to call anyone for help.

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To further mystify things, there were two pumps:

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The next morning I sent a distressed email to Margie:

It looks like I have TWO altitude systems… I just don’t know how I’m going to sleep in the red vessel of death if that’s what I’m supposed to do… it’s small and scary–like a coffin. It just doesn’t seem SAFE if I NEED to get out.”

When Margie stopped laughing, she explained that I had the tent system and a hyperbaric chamber, which is used to hyperoxygenate the blood to aid recovery after workouts. As for the tent, she warned me to use a fan as:

“It does get hot in there (well it did w/ [my husband] and me in it anyway… no don’t go there).”

Out of respect for Margie, we won’t go there.

Ken told me to use the large pump, the oxygen generator, with the tent. I set it to 5 the first night to simulate 5,000 feet and then increased to 6 the second night and 7 every night thereafter. I estimate I’ve been sleeping at 7,293 feet—7,000 from the generator, 200 for my location, 90 feet for the 9th floor and 3 extra from the mattress pillow top.

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I fed the tube from the generator into the tent and did not need a complete seal, just positive pressure. Since the concentrator is constantly pumping air in, air will naturally flow out.

If I had a swinging personal life, this post could take an interesting turn. Sadly, the tent only encouraged me to spend extra time in bed to sleep, read or enjoy nut butter and computer time early in the morning.

Photo 56

Have I noticed performance improvements while living at sea-level? My recent hard running efforts have FELT comfortable, but it’s hard to separate that variable from the taper I’m enjoying.

I have noticed the dehydrating effects altitude has and am drinking more water as a result. As an erratic sleeper, I’m happy that my quality of sleep has improved, perhaps from the lulling of the generator. I wonder if Ken really wants it back?

Overall, I believe this was good preparation to acclimatize for the Guatape World Cup. We’ll see how things shake out on Sunday. Stay tuned.

You’ll be able to follow along live on Sunday morning via www.triathlon.org as Lindsey enjoys all 6,200 feet has to offer.  And next week, check back for a race report.  Wish her luck!

14 Comments

  1. what an incredibly interesting post...

    I'd say im used to the variety Ray brings, but you just took it to the next level. Great read, and GOOD LUCK!

    Reply
  2. Great post would love to try a tent like that, I ran a mountain race in the Alps a couple of months ago and really suffered...

    Reply
  3. Lindsey,

    Congrats on stepping up to the big time. Although I am way too old and slow, I still daydream of being a professional triathlete and competing at that level. I hope the tent helps and that your race results exceed your expectations.

    I'll be rooting for you.

    Richard

    Reply
  4. That was quite hilarious (and impressive). If you had to sleep in that red thing, I would have had even more mad respect for you.

    Does it feel like you are at higher altitude when you are inside (like, is it harder to breathe)? Also, is there an easy way to double-check that the "altitude" (oxygen level) inside matches what you're going for?

    Reply
  5. Wow. Good luck. My only experience with high altitude was Cusco, Peru (and thankfully I wasn't running). Cusco sits at 11,200 ft, and I felt terrible the first day we were there. I can't even describe altitude sickness. It's like hitting the wall, but 20 times worse and add nausea.

    Reply
  6. Cool post Lindsey, good luck in South America! I know you'll do great. We had so much fun cheering you on at Myrtle Beach, I can't wait to hear about your adventure!
    Karen

    Reply
  7. Hi,

    due to my job I work and train at 1400m in Joburg.

    My intention is to compete with my father a 10k in Christmas.

    Does any one seen a table or a formula that can help me to understand the expected improvement to compete in Barcelona at sea level?

    Thanks!

    Reply
  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply
  9. Lindsey is racing tomorrow in Guatape - everyone wish her luck. And a disclaimer from me, her coach - there was no funny business ever in that tent!! AND I have spent many hours napping in the red vessel of death - it's a great recovery tool.

    Reply
  10. Awesome LJ! Can't wait to see you on Universal Sport one of these days!!!

    Question: Can I borrow that tent too? I am running Tucson Marathon on Dec 11. I really curious how I will run that race in 4700 feet altitude while I train & live below 450 feet sea level.

    Does anyone has any idea that help me out with better training?

    Thanks in advance!

    Reply
  11. Here's a belated thank you for your good luck wishes. It's nice to see that the great Margie weighed in, too.

    Chris, in the tent I wasn't engaged in... strenuous activity, so didn't notice shortness of breath. I noticed that I was thirstier in the tent and drank a full water bottle through each night. I could have measured the altitude with an altimeter, but I simply set it to max and hoped for the best. :)

    Ancient Chinese Secret/Frank, the tent belongs to Ken Mierke (linked in post above). To prepare for my race at altitude, I hydrated more than normal and started doing so a couple weeks out. Good luck in Tucson!

    Reply
  12. p.s. - the tent was great for picnics!

    Reply
  13. In hindsight how much did the tent help?

    Reply
  14. Nice post

    Reply

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