Going the Distance with Imogen Cotter

By We Love Cycling

Altitude training

In this month’s column, Irish professional cyclist and Škoda ambassador Imogen Cotter tells us more about the world of altitude training. 

 Hello all, and welcome back to my monthly column with We Love Cycling. If you’re new here, my name is Imogen Cotter and I’m a professional cyclist for Fenix Deceuninck. 

In last month’s column I chatted about how I’ve had a slower start than most to my racing season. I suffered some serious injuries last year as a result of a crash in training, when a car speeding hit me head-on. I’ve been very lucky that my team is so understanding of the long mental and physical recovery from this. They also see my potential, which is really encouraging for me. I’ve been working closely with my coach, my physio and my strength and conditioning coach to try and get myself back to the athlete I was before my crash. So, when my coach suggested doing a block at altitude before my racing season started in April, I was all for it! 

So, what is altitude training? Oxygen levels at altitude are lower – that’s why you see people climbing mountains slowly but surely, as you have to allow your body enough time to adapt to this lower O2 level. To describe it very basically, if you spend an extended block of time at altitude, (the recommended minimum is 18 days) your body adapts to these lower O2 levels by creating more red blood cells to transport oxygen around your body in a more efficient manner. You can imagine the benefits of this for competitive cyclists! 

It quickly became clear to me that going away to do a block at altitude was going to be EXPENSIVE! I am living in Girona, Spain, so the nearest place to train at altitude is Andorra – which is where a lot of athletes go. However, renting a place there, and the logistics of getting there meant that the trip would be way out of my budget. 

I soon started to research alternatives. There is a hotel in Calpe in Alicante where each of the rooms are set up like an altitude chamber, with a generator that decreases the oxygen levels. Unfortunately, a stay there would cost thousands. I also considered getting an altitude tent to cover my bed, but I would have to pay close to €1,000, and I wasn’t prepared to part with that kind of money for something I was only trialling out! I had all but given up, when another professional cyclist living in Girona said that he had an altitude tent that he was renting out and I could collect it that day! So, I did!

As you can see above, the tent I rented covered me from my bellybutton up. The tent was lined with a chain at the bottom to ensure that there were no major gaps allowing air to come in. The plastic covering was held up by a hollow plastic tube structure, which allowed the generator to pump in air to the tent. I was lucky in some ways because the altitude generator came with a long connecting lead, which enabled me to leave the generator outside my bedroom – it can be pretty loud! The minimum amount of time required to see adaptations from the tent is 11 hours per day, so I was spending every moment that I could inside! As soon as I found myself chilling on the sofa after a long training day, I’d get up and straight into bed! I was also spending at least 2 hours in the tent every afternoon so I could benefit a bit more. 

To start with, in the first week, I felt great. I was sleeping well, my training was going great, and my energy levels were high. However, my body soon quickly tuned into the lower oxygen levels, and all my metrics went haywire! My resting heart rate shot up, my heart rate variability dropped, and my oxygen saturation levels fell. My body entered the adaptive stage and getting through training for the next couple of weeks felt like a total SLOG. By the middle of the third week, I was so done with the tent. I just wanted a normal night’s sleep without hearing a generator buzzing in my ear all night!  

I’ve been out of the tent for a couple of weeks now, and my training has been going really well. It’s hard to say exactly what results I have seen from the altitude, but I feel that my VO2 work has improved. I can push harder for slightly longer, although it still hurts like hell!  

Don’t miss out on the next instalment of ‘Going the Distance with Imogen Cotter’. Until then, happy cycling!