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The Prescott Daily Courier | Prescott, Arizona

home : sports : sports September 14, 2014

4/20/2014 6:01:00 AM
Altitude Advantage
Whiskey Off-Road: While training, it doesn't hurt to live a mile high
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier
Chloe and T.J. Woodruff,Prescott-based pro mountain bikers, chose to move to the higher altitude of Prescott to enjoy the variety of trails that the neaby mountains offer their training regimen.
Les Stukenberg/The Daily Courier Chloe and T.J. Woodruff,
Prescott-based pro mountain bikers, chose to move to the higher altitude of Prescott to enjoy the variety of trails that the neaby mountains offer their training regimen.

From Epic Rides (2013). Whiskey Off-Road: 10 Years In The Saddle

Doug Cook
The Daily Courier

For professional mountain bikers Todd Wells and Ben Sonntag, it makes sense that they reside in Durango, Colo., where the elevation is 6,512 feet above sea level.

When Wells, 38, and Sonntag, 33, arrive in Prescott this week for the 11th annual Whiskey Off-Road's 50-mile pro endurance race next Sunday morning, they should have a leg up on most of their competition.

You see, Prescott's altitude is around 5,400 feet, and their bodies will already be adjusted to the pitfalls of high-elevation riding because that's where they do the bulk of their training. They won't get altitude sickness, they'll have an easier time breathing on climbs, and they'll be used to the Southwest's hot, dry weather.

"You have to be a little bit more careful on getting enough rest between workouts," Sonntag said this past week regarding his Whiskey training regimen. "There's always the saying about all the benefits living at altitude has for improving endurance and stuff. But you also have to be careful not to lose your speed."

At sea level, cyclists can train more intensely and ride faster. If they get winded, they'll recover within a couple minutes because there's more oxygen in the atmosphere.

At elevation, however, you must balance that intensity while maintaining the requisite power. You can't get too winded with less oxygen at your disposal or you'll set yourself back several minutes in a race.

In the Whiskey's pro race, the challenge is to ride well in both of its diverse parts. You have to pedal fast enough to keep up on its single-track trails while possessing the endurance to complete the hour-long climb out of Skull Valley.

"It's an hour of continuous effort where you don't have any rest," said Sonntag, who finished fourth at last year's Whiskey. "So as much as you want to stick to a group, you have to be careful not to over-pace yourself. Because once you go over your limit, you can't recover for an hour. You can lose a lot of time by blowing yourself up there."

In other words, you must realize what your capabilities are and not exceed them or risk bottoming out and not crossing the finish line.

Wells, who also lives in Tucson (2,500-foot elevation) for part of the year, said the Whiskey is at an elevation that requires some altitude-specific training.

Optimally, if he hasn't scheduled any other races, he'll sleep in an altitude tent for three to four weeks before the Whiskey. He'll also complete 4.5- to 5-hour rides from his home to Mt. Lemmon (around 8,500 feet) just outside Tucson.

The week of the race, Wells will back off slightly with training rides that feature only some intensity and length.

"It's more just to stay in the groove and have all of those zones firing, rather than actually doing a lot of depleting stuff and trying to rebuild and get a lot of fitness out of that," said Wells, who finished seventh in the 2013 Whiskey, his first showing at the race. "It's more trying to rest and get the most out of the fitness that you already have."


USA Cycling Level 1 coach and bike fitter Ben Ollett of Plan 7 Coaching in Park City, Utah, said the Whiskey "is a relatively fast 50 miles" despite its two long climbs.

A coach for the past 11 years, Ollett, 34, tells pro riders to examine the demands of any particular race and let those guide their training. For the Whiskey, that means incorporating practice rides with two lengthy climbs where you're able to go hard for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.

Mountain bikers who live at or near sea level shouldn't focus on their maximal oxygen uptake when they're training to race at altitude, Ollett said.

Maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, is the maximum volume of oxygen that the body can use in one minute during maximal or exhaustive exercise. (VO2 is measured as milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight.)

Ollett says that the body's performance starts to diminish around 5,000 feet. He added that VO2 power decreases 2.3 percent at 5,000 feet and continues to decrease 2.3 percent for every 1,000 feet of climb.

The Whiskey Off-Road starts and ends at 5,400 feet. It climbs to about 6,800 feet before dropping below 4,500 and climbing to nearly 7,000 again.

Instead, Ollett says cyclists should complete steady four- or five-hour aerobic endurance rides on road bikes and mountain bikes, like Wells does, eliminating the hard accelerations that they can normally tolerate at sea level.

"I kind of have them do both (road and mountain bike rides), because road training is a lot steadier, even though you're pedaling, more or less, the entire time," Ollett added.

Sonntag said he competed in the shorter Rumble at 18 Road Mountain Bike Race in Fruita, Colo., this weekend to prepare for the Whiskey.

"It's waking the body up to get the intensity back," he added.


Three of the pro athletes whom Ollett coaches will race in the Whiskey 50, including male riders Howard Grotts and Rotem Ishay, and female cyclist Erin Huck.

As the Whiskey gets closer, Ollett recommends that they dial down the length of their aerobic rides while ramping up the intensity to add speed to the endurance block.

Ollett also tells them to pick a power or heart rate number that they will not exceed during the race, based on their physiology.

Days before a big race, a rider may conduct a 20- or 30-minute field test, or time trial, in which he or she rides as hard as possible to determine optimal heart rate.

Cyclists often attach heart rate straps or power meters to their bikes to gauge this.

"The average heart rate from that effort - you'll use that number to base your zones (during the race)," Ollett added.

In training, Ollett said once cyclists notice their heart rate reach a certain number of beats per minute, they can decide whether the pace is sustainable or too fast.

"There's no perfect method, but you can ballpark it within about five beats," Ollett said.

Ollett cites the performance of Seattle cyclist Spencer Paxson, who impressed at the XC Mountain Bike Nationals in Granby, Colo., a few years ago. Racing at 9,000 feet, Paxson didn't let his heart rate go above 165 beats per minute.

Paxson wasn't near the front of the pack early in the race, but he steadily worked his way up and almost achieved a podium finish, Ollett said.

That's why Ollett tells his riders to start off the Whiskey at a slower pace. For a pro cyclist, the winning times here have usually hovered around 3-1/2 hours.

Sonntag said he accounts for heart rate and power on his training rides. He added that your heart rate gives you a good baseline for a race, but that you can't trust it 100 percent because it fluctuates.

"If you train a lot, your heart rate actually is lower because your body is kind of fatigued," he said.

Wells said he doesn't monitor his heart rate in a mountain bike race because it's too distracting.

In the Whiskey, the terrain is rough and rocky. On the climb out of Skull Valley, the rocks are loose and concentration is crucial.

"You have to really focus on the surroundings," Wells said. "The angles are much different. The (dirt) road can go from (a grade of) 3 percent to 10 percent instantly, where on a paved road things are much more graded. It's more of a feeling thing."


Another key facet to altitude riding/racing is drinking water early and often, and consuming easily digestible carbohydrate-rich foods.

Sonntag and Wells eat well in the two days prior to a big race. Two-and-a-half to three hours before the Whiskey, they'll have a modest breakfast. For example, Wells will eat a plate of rice and eggs.

"You don't have a lot sitting in your stomach when you start," Wells said. "You want to have enough energy, but nothing extra."

Since your respiratory rate is higher at altitude, you dehydrate faster because it's usually less humid than at sea level. And it's harder to track how much you're sweating.

So, during the Whiskey, Sonntag and Wells will consume 100-calorie energy gels every half hour along with an electrolyte drink.

"It's important to be consistent with that, and start early," Sonntag said. "Even if you don't feel hungry, you need to start eating 30 minutes into the race so your body can recover."

Many pros' bikes have two water bottle cages that hold 20-plus ounces each. Even though that's not enough water for a cyclist to last the entire 50 miles, there are three aid stations along the route for refills.

"At those feed zones I'll get a bottle each time - so that's three bottles, and I'll start with a bottle," Wells said. "So that's about four bottles, or a bottle every 45 minutes."

Since a person's respiratory rate is higher at altitude, you dehydrate faster because it's less humid than sea level, and it's harder to keep tabs on how much you're actually sweating.


Ollett recommends that cyclists who live at or near sea level and race at altitude should arrive at the venue 10 days to two weeks before the ride to adapt and take it "pretty easy."

Often that's not possible for amateur riders because they're working. The body needs seven to 10 days to increase its red-blood cell count.

On the other hand, arriving the day before may be all right because the body won't know what hit it yet. Showing up for a high-altitude race a few days beforehand can give you altitude sickness.

"A lot of it's a little bit of trial and error for different people," Ollett said. "Some people come in the day of the race, if it's late enough in the day. Or they'll try to get there the night before. Or some people try to get there a full week out."

Ollett added that it's best not to replicate a high-altitude ride in the days leading up to it.

"It's tempting to go out and pre-ride until you've memorized the course, but that will be counterproductive," Ollett said. "Regardless of when you arrive, you need to be rested, even more so than at a sea level event."

Wells and Sonntag know that advice all too well - and they'll be ready for everything the Whiskey throws at them.

Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc

Related Stories:
• Prescott's Woodruff outlasts women's Whiskey 50 field
• Switzerland's Sauser slips past tight group for 1st Whiskey 50 win
• Whiskey Off-Road: Rain, hail, snow & mud steal the show on Day 2
• Whiskey Off-Road: For Back of the Pack Racing, 'Klunker Crit' was right up their alley
• Video: Ride the Whiskey Off-Road course with Prescott pro riders
• Whiskey Off-Road: 11th running packed with amateur field, signature pro races
• Whiskey Off-Road: Spectators can watch the race here
• Whiskey Off-Road: Complete weekend schedule of events
• Whiskey Off-Road: 2-time winner back to defend title
• Whiskey Off-Road Featured Course Element: Road Climbs
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