Have any plans for December 13th, 2020? If not, you might consider signing up for The Antarctic Ice Marathon – the southernmost marathon in the world! If by any chance you’ve run a marathon on each of the other 6 continents, you might be one of few to join the ‘7 Continents Marathon Club’.
A formidable physical challenge and incredibly unique opportunity, the Antarctic marathon (42.2 km) occurs at the base of the Ellsworth mountains by Union Glacier, Antarctica. It is comprised of conditions including ice, snow, strong winds and an average temperature (with windchill) of -20ºC. The event occurs at an altitude of 700 metres. To get to the site, runners are flown into Union Glacier Camp from Punta Arenas, Chile. The camp is only accessible by air.
The scenery is no doubt indescribable – here’s a photo taken on a recent trip to the Antarctic Peninsula
So what kind of gear do you need for a challenge of this magnitude? Layered clothing, ski goggles, a facemask and trail runners are highly recommended along with feet/hand warmers. To prepare, some experience running on ice is recommended. This might be doable if you live in a country like Canada, but those who live in temperate climates have been known to train in giant industrial freezers! Other methods for preparation include running on a sandy beach (likely a welcome environment before heading to a place like Antarctica).
And of course, here at Altitude Athletic we can help you prepare for any challenge, on any continent. Our memberships are ideal for goals involving challenging environments and variable conditions. Read more about memberships at Altitude here.
Gentoo penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula.
Sadly, there are no penguins there to cheer you on as no penguins live that far south. This is a shame given their undeniable cuteness!
The event record for men was set at the 2019 marathon by William Hafferty of the United States, who ran the race in an impressive 3:34:12! Meanwhile, Lenka Frycova of the Czech Republic dominated the female race with a time of 4:40:38. Last year, competitors came from all over the world, including Canada, France Denmark, China and Japan.
WOMEN IN ENDURANCE SPORT. For many years, sport was considered to be only for men, as women’s physiology was viewed as being less efficient, weaker, and unable to push their bodies in the rigor of sport. Prior to the 1960’s, women were banned or restricted from longer running and endurance events as they were considered “too fragile” for distance sport or even shorter Olympic events like the 400 and 800m sprints. This began the era of mass participation of women in sports, and in the 1972 Olympics the first women’s 1500m was run. The same year, eight women “legally” ran the Boston marathon, and by 1984 (only 35 years ago!) the first women’s Olympic marathon was sanctioned.
In 2019, 45% of runners were women and in more local smaller city races, women tend to comprise over 50% of participants. Women’s participation in running and endurance sports has come leaps and bounds in just the last several decades, but only recently has science and psychology begun to identify some profound differences between the sexes. What exactly is it that differentiates women’s performance abilities from men?
It is generally accepted that women are smaller in stature, have more body fat, and less absolute muscle mass and fewer and smaller muscle fibers than men. As well, women have physiologically lower VO2 max numbers than men (the maximum amount of oxygen their bodies can utilize during high-intensity exercise), which is also sensible. In power-based activities, these differences are likely where the discrepancies primarily lie. Across the board, women’s distance running and cycling records among elite athletes are typically 10-12% slower than men, although with longer distances these patterns tend to change as we’ll discuss more later. It has also been seen that men have greater running velocity and can cover more distance in a set period of time. These differences are more profound in shorter, more powerful contexts like shuttle runs or sprints.
However, when it comes to longer, slower, or more submaximal effort events, women have some interesting advantages. Women have higher prevalence of slow-twitch muscle fibres which contract less quickly, but can contract consistently for very long periods of time. The hormone estrogen also seems to improve the oxidative capacity of muscles – meaning greater oxygen update and improved recovery. Men however, tend to be able to have enhanced muscle growth due to higher level of testosterone – again, benefitting sports that favour power but potentially less valuable to low-and-slow type training and racing.
What Does This Mean?
So, when women train at the same intensity as men, they are able to adapt to the same degree, and in some circumstances even more effectively. As we’ve discussed, especially in distance events, women in endurance sports who focus on endurance training are able to become more metabolically efficient and run just as far as men. The science tells us that they should be as quick, but not so fast!
Go a Little Longer
When it comes to ultra-endurance events, women seem to have the upper hand. Many ultra-endurance race winners in unisex races are women – and not by a small margin. This past year, German cyclist Fiona Kolbinger raced 4000km through Europe and finished the Transcontinental Race 10 hours ahead of her closest male opponent. This past May, Katie Wright beat 40 men and six other women to win the Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra-marathon in New Zealand, running almost non-stop for 30 hours. It seems that when the distances get longer, the women are rising to the top.
Why is this? Well, for all of the physiological science out there, there is only just recently a rise in the “biopsychosocial model” – which essentially looks at the mind-body connection and how the mind can affect boundaries within our deeply-entrenched biological systems. In excruciatingly-long distance races, athletes are working far under their maximal power for very long periods of time. Absolute strength and power is of less importance, and mental patience and grit hold much more water. Women also tend to be better at pacing themselves and “seeing further into the future” when moderating their early-race paces. Females also tend to use more emotion-focused coping mechanisms during the pain, fatigue, and sleep deprivation points in long races. Whether its experiences like childbirth or mental toughness from, well, life, it seems that this has given women a leg up when the going gets beyond difficult.
On the Whole…
Women have traditionally been seen as the physiologically “weaker sex” for many years. Culture and society has finally started challenging these norms, as women are now participating in events similar to men, and in some cases out-performing them. While it’s unlikely that women will naturally be lifting heavier weights than men or sprinting 100m faster than men, in longer races the gap is significantly lessened. Moreover, both genders need to remember that the power of the mind is probably the greatest tool of all, and with consistent training for both mind and body, great things can be achieved.
About the Author:
Lauren Roberts is a Registered Physiotherapist and Founder of The Running Physio in Toronto. For more information on her team, the clinic, and for more great blog articles, visit www.therunningphysio.ca
About Altitude Athletic Training: We are a group of coaches, scientists and fitness enthusiasts who empower members of all fitness levels to reach and exceed their athletic goals. All coaches have bachelor’s degrees in kinesiology (at minimum) and will help clients every step of the way. Learn more –>
As the leaves begin to turn and temperatures begin to drop, for many people this time of year becomes staying indoors with Netflix. For the endurance athlete however, the time between November and April can represent a big wide window of opportunity to reflect on what went well in your season, identify areas of focus for coming one, and develop a finely-tuned base-building plan to prep you to conquer the spring.
If your racing season took you into the fall, it’s always a good idea to take a few weeks, or even a couple of months, off of a structured training plan. Physically, this gives your body a true chance to recover, as prolonged racing and training causes a substantial degree of muscle breakdown and a systemic inflammatory response. It can take up to 19 days after an Ironman-distance triathlon for inflammation and cortisol to return to baseline levels, even in a well-trained athlete. Mentally, endurance events require long term commitment, self-discipline, and a high degree of day-to-day planning and time management. It’s healthy to give yourself a break from the rigidity of this type of schedule.
So once you’ve refreshed your mind and body and as the mornings continue to get darker, here are 5 reasons why you should get yourself back in gear over the colder indoor months.
Controlled environments let you hone in on specific weaknesses.
Did hills eat you up this year? Does your form start to fall apart at a certain speed? Now is the time to work on whatever’s holding you back from the next level. Not having a race schedule allows you to build training blocks and choose training workouts with these goals in mind. Running or cycling workouts using treadmills and indoor trainers are great ways to target exactly what you need to improve on.
Workouts give you more bang for your buck.
Take cycling for example. It is generally accepted that 60 minutes on an indoor trainer is equivalent to 90-100 minutes of outdoor cycling. This is because you are pedaling against a controlled, consistent resistance, and there aren’t any opportunities for coasting downhill or stopping at a red light. This is a good thing, since even the strongest mental game can go a little bananas when on a trainer for long periods of time. Which brings us to our next point…
Classes do the job, and they’re social.
Endurance sports can be a little lonely. Maybe you’ve got some friends in the summer that you can join for long runs or rides, but the winter can be much more isolating. Rather than hole up, try a class specifically designed to challenge runners or cyclists. Whether you’ve got a friend to go with you or not, the time always passes much more quickly in a group setting, not to mention it’s way more fun. Check out Altitude’s roster of upcoming classes this winter here!
Hit March with a spring in your step.
Most athletes look to start racing again for March-April. Nothing feels worse than sitting on your couch for several months, only to blow the dust off of your shoes in spring and have to dedicate the first 6-12 weeks of training to just base build. Even doing a few key workouts per week can keep you from detraining, or, even better, can help you beef up your base before the warm weather comes around again.
Keeps the winter blues at bay.
SADS, or seasonal affective disorder syndrome, is a proven disorder that manifests as an increase in sleep, sedentary behavior, depression and sometimes weight gain that occurs during the fall/winter months and remits in the spring. Research has shown that light therapy and getting outside is helpful to combat symptoms, as well as aerobic exercise. Bonus points if you can grab a buddy to join you.
So after your last race, take a breather, do some reflection, and plan for crush your goals for the following year.
Today we feature the experience of a cyclist on the June 2019 Magic Places adventure cycling trip to the Pyrenees in France. He’s got even bigger plans for next year, and altitude training is definitely something he is going to want to do for his next big riding trip.
June 2019: an epic cycling adventure through The Pyrenees mountain range of France (and Spain) organized by Magic Places. The goal: “…have some fun with friends, see some great sights, and get into better shape.”
The trip started in Toulouse, but the actual riding would start in the seaside town of Biarritz and finish in Carcassone, with difficult climbs and spells of inclement weather to tackle in between. There were 10 rides in total, very few rest days, and a different place to stay every night. The elevation gain was significant, but so was the perseverance. At the end of the trip, the key discoveries were: “…dealing with the weather, encountering lots of livestock, keeping hydrated due to the elevation (5 large bottles of water per day), dealing with some difficult grades, eating some great food, and of course, taking care of each other.”
Check out the full itinerary and trip photos below…
A 16-day trip through France (and Spain), showcasing some of the most pristine landscape in southwest Europe. The total distance travelled on the bike was 934.3 km and total elevation gain was 18,463 m. In total, it was 51 h 11 min of riding.
The Pyrenees – stunning and rural, and a thrilling challenge for cyclists. “We faced a lot of bumps between here and there…”
The Journey: Framed by a Stunning Backdrop
Whether your quads were burning from a seemingly never-ending climb or you were shedding layers from rapid changes in temperature – the scenery never failed to disappoint. Take this 102 km ride from Isaba to Pau for example…
Gorgeous ride: 1513 m of climbing, a 26 km climb to start the day, green mountains, snow at the summit, road followed the river, goats, cows and horses on road.(from Strava)
“Beautiful day, more climbing…”
When cycling uphill, your rate of deceleration actually increases due to the impact of gravity on momentum. So you have to push your pedals at a constant effort throughout the climb to avoid a dramatic reduction in speed. Altitude is also a factor. You’ll find it harder to breathe because oxygen is no longer as easily available to your body. This can be particularly noticeable for those who have limited experience cycling at altitude, and those of us living at sea level. Indeed the guys on the trip who were from Calgary seemed to have a bit of an advantage when it came to the big climbing days (Calgary is at 1045 m).
“Lunchtime, bikes parked…”
Re-fuelling is extremely important during a trip like this. Fortunately, the food in France is delicious. Midday stops in rural French towns allow for lengthy lunch breaks and great meals. Those calories are certainly going to good use!
Col du Tourmalet
“The big climb…”
We’ve reached the highest point of our ride. This is the most utilized of any peak in the Tour de France. Le Geant de Tourmalet is one of two statues found on the summit. This ride was actually delayed by a day due to the rain and fog which would have made it almost impossible to see the peak.
An Epic ride: Strava stats from the big climb
Distance: 128.31 km
Moving Time: 7:12:16
Elevation: 3,685 m
Gorgeous sunny day for popular Tour de France climbs Col d’Aspine, Col du Tourmalet and Col de Peyresourdes. 3085 m of climbing. (Strava)
There is always more to altitude to gain…”
It’s always a great feeling seeing the route you conquered and looking through the Strava stats that show your hard work. There’s always more mountains to climb and landscapes to explore.
In today’s highly-developed world, gaining a competitive edge is more difficult than ever. Speed suits for swimmers, carbon fibre soles in running shoes, and aerodynamic helmets and bikes have become more and more available to recreational athletes looking to up their game. However, as fun and cool as these tech trends are, they don’t actually change the most important thing – your own personal human engine.
Within the millions of blood vessels in your body travel red blood cells, called erythrocytes. The role of these erythrocytes is to transport highly-coveted oxygen to tissues in order to power your body. If you decide to train for a marathon and get going on a training program, the body begins to produce more and more red blood cells over the weeks to be able to deliver more oxygen to starving muscles that are working harder and longer than in previous weeks. This is a normal response to training and one of the reasons why a long run weekly is very important! The quality of the red blood cells also begins to improve as each blood cell becomes larger and able to carry more oxygen molecules. You can notice these changes during a training program as distances that once would make you feel tired and out of breath become easier and less effortful.
The body is very smart and very insightful. In circumstances where oxygen is harder to come by, it will quickly realize that this special and limited resource needs to be used as effectively and as efficiently as possible. Studies have shown that at altitudes of 2100m and up, the number of blood cells in the bloodstream is higher, and size of red blood cells are bigger. In most basic terms – you can go harder and longer with the same amount of effort.
Now, because the body is so smart (and also lazy), the timing and consistency of training at altitude becomes important. Effects on blood cells can begin as early as 2 hours of exposure, and get better and better with time. If you’ve got a race coming up in a few months, you’ll want to spend about 24 hours total at altitude prior to in order to begin to see tangible changes. If you’ve really got your eye on the prize, the more hours that you can train, the better! Studies have shown that red blood cells increase in size after every 100 hours of altitude training.
Who can benefit from training high in the sky? Well, if you’ve picked a race that is taking place above sea-level, you are absolutely going to want to prep for it by getting yourself acclimatized. Even the most well-rounded training program done at sea level will lend itself to a sub-par race at altitude as the body will be starved for oxygen that isn’t available. Not to mention, it’ll feel fairly awful. Second, even if you don’t have anything high in the sky coming up, you’ll be able to truly maximize your training and body adaptations by getting into the chamber even once per week. More blood cells = more oxygen = more work with less effort. Hello PB!
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If you have been around endurance sports for long enough, you’ve definitely heard a coach, a training partner, or a Tour de France broadcaster mention something about red blood cells and how they are important for aerobic exercise. But, what are they, really? And how do they work?
Red blood cells (also called erythrocytes) are miniature concave saucers, and exist in trillions in our blood stream. Their main function is to carry oxygen from the lungs to the working muscles. They are important, because muscles need oxygen to perform aerobic exercise.
Red blood cells move oxygen with the help of haemoglobin, a red protein that gives the cells its colour. Millions of haemoglobin molecules bind, or grab, four oxygen molecules in the blood. Then, the red blood cells shuttle the molecules to working muscles.
Look at it this way: if we are oxygen, red blood cells are public transit. The more shuttles we have, the more efficiently we get to where we want to go.
The more red blood cells we have the more haemoglobin we can carry the more oxygen we can transport to working muscle the better our muscles exercise the slower we tire.
Recap: if you’re an endurance athlete, you want those red blood cells.
But, can we control the amount of red blood cells that we have? Can we train our bodies to make more?
Red blood cell count is in part genetically determined, but yes, it can be manipulated. The body can start producing more red blood cells when exposed to low-oxygen (or hypoxic) conditions. Here is how it works:
Does erythropoietin (or EPO) sound familiar to you? Think of Lance Armstrong confessing to Oprah about illegally using extra doses of it, nearly 10 years ago.
We don’t have to be doping to use EPO: we each have a natural source of this good stuff inside of us. When little oxygen is available in our surroundings, the kidneys secrete EPO, which binds to cells in the bone marrow that produce more red blood cells.
In short: Exposure to a low-oxygen environment can increase red blood cell count, and increasing red blood cell count can improve aerobic performance.
How to increase my own red blood cell count:
It is common practice to train at altitudes of 6,000 to 10,000 feet, in order to increase red blood cell count. Individuals can see an initial spike in red blood cell count as early as 24 to 48 hours after the first training bout at altitude, and tend to see a real change after three weeks to a month of low-oxygen training. That is why it is common to hear of athletes training at altitude for a month, before coming down to race. Read more about the science behind altitude training here.
How do I know if my red blood cell count is increasing?
A simple blood test can reveal your hematocrit, which is the ratio of your volume of red blood cells to the total volume of your blood. This value can reflect changes in your red blood cell count. We recommend that you regularly monitor your blood profile when training in a low-oxygen environment, so that you can understand how you are responding to the training.
Keep in mind: Before you experiment for yourself, know that changes in red blood cell count might vary with the elevation at which you choose to train, the fitness and training background of athletes, and the person to person variability of EPO production.
The bottom line: If you fancy getting faster, training up high and tapping into your very own natural source of red blood cells (I said natural, Lance) is absolutely worth a try.