Altitude Simulation: A Journey of Performance and Discovery by Kasia Niewiadoma

By Kasia Niewiadoma

What I have learned over the past, especially over the past two years, is the importance of altitude camps and altitude simulations as part of training preparation. Until recently, riders would go to the mountains only before big stage races, like Tour de France or Giro, to prepare for long, steady efforts.

Then it changed; athletes started to look for ways of improvement all year long, and because high mountains are usually covered in snow during the winter months, altitude simulation became a hot topic. There are two simulations you can use. Altitude tent that you sleep in and try to spend at least 12 hours, or altitude rooms that are less claustrophobic and less restricting.

Initial experience and adaptation

Recently, I had the chance to try it for myself at a training camp experience in Alicante, Spain. I have never experienced “fake” mountain thin air effect, so my curiosity made me very excited to see how my training preparation would be affected.

To be fair, the first nights were awful for me. I could not sleep properly, I felt like I was suffocated and constantly tired, and what was most demoralising was that my training could not have been done correctly. I was simply empty and sleepy, and it lasted for three days.

Suddenly, though, I regained all my energy and strength, which allowed me to go through the days with many smiles on my face and good kilometres of mileage in my legs. As I returned home after two weeks, I can only say that the altitude simulation positively affected me. In fact, maybe having those 2-3 bad days is good for us; I think it forced me to rest, chill, stop running around, and add extra hours on a bike to my schedule. Lesson learned: more is not always better.

Contrasting experiences: Altitude camp vs. simulation

Going to the mountains for an altitude camp not only allows you to train properly and become more focused and more concentrated on your goal but also allows you to explore new places, see breathtaking views, and experience mountain cuisine and culture created by generations of passionate people.

That’s what I love very much about my job, and that’s why I am so appreciative of my career. To be able to explore and still get the best out of myself. Training with simulated altitude closes you in one room for most of the day. You feel that you need to stay inside to get the best out of your stay, and besides going out for training, you just stay in the room and rest and chill, and that’s the lifestyle I am least attracted to. I can do that for 2-3 weeks, knowing that it will benefit my performance, but as a person, I feel that I burn time and don’t do anything for anyone, which makes me feel a little empty and less stoked.

Unforeseen challenges and benefits

You never know how you are going to wake up. There is a high chance of having a bad night of sleep, affecting your ride. Being paranoid about having everything perfectly planned and organised around yourself can add extra unnecessary stress. As professional athletes, we obsess too much about things we cannot control — wanting that remarkable race preparation flow. Not knowing how specific training sessions will affect you, given that you train low and sleep high, can create stress.

Impact on performance and recovery

Besides having the first bad days at the camp, I didn’t feel too much effect on my performance during the camp. That’s the nature of altitude training. You only know whether it worked or not once you are back home! And then every person has their special days. After having done at least ten altitude camps in my life, I know that my strongest days are 5th and 6th, and then after ten days, I am getting strong and consistent with my performance.

On the other hand, I feel terrible on the 2nd day after the camp. I can stay on a couch all day long and just eat whatever I see — I feel as if I am pregnant even though I don’t know what it feels like:) Before an important event, I always make sure I race around my 5th and 6th days.

Tactical approaches to altitude training

For the most part, together with my coach, we kind of go back in time and train using only heart rate data and try to forget about the power meter. It is very easy to overdo and overtrain yourself with compromised recovery. I always take the first days easy to adapt to altitude — meaning no strenuous efforts during my rides. I make sure I check oxygen saturation each morning so I can tell how far away from a proper altitude adaptation I am.

Balancing benefits and challenges

I take it day by day; I don’t plan anything far ahead, and I stay in close or even closer contact with my coach. It is hard to balance the right training load and recovery when existing in such conditions, so it’s even more important to listen to your body very carefully.

For other athletes new to altitude training — I would say, take it easier than what you would normally expect from yourself. Forget about hitting the right numbers and focus on the sensations. Keep journaling or leaving a note in your training peaks about how you felt each day and what you wish you could change. But again, the most important thing is not to overtrain. It’s hard to return from that dark place.