Aspen-area elite athletes breakdown training, competing at altitude |

Aspen-area elite athletes breakdown training, competing at altitude

Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times

ASPEN — Noah Hoffman never quite found eternal glory as a member of the U.S. cross-country ski team. He had a solid career, competing on the World Cup for the better part of eight years before retiring in 2018 after two Olympic appearances, but success was few and far between.

Born in Evergreen, Hoffman grew up in Aspen and certainly credits the altitude for him being able to develop “one of the biggest engines in the world” in terms of aerobic capacity. At elevation, Hoffman was certainly one of the best. Unfortunately, most World Cup cross-country ski races are held closer to sea level, leaving him at somewhat of a disadvantage.

“I would have been better and consistently maybe top 10 if every race was held above 6,000 feet,” Hoffman said, “rather than below 6,000 feet. But that wasn’t the nature of the sport and that wasn’t what I was training for.”

The reasoning for his disadvantage came down to technique and the ability to develop those fast-twitch muscles needed for elite racing. Sure, racing at sea level wasn’t challenging for him in terms of cardio, but training at elevation as much as he did made it more difficult for him to develop those fine-tuned skills. This is a big reason why Hailey Swirbul, a second-year member of the U.S. cross-country ski team who also grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley, wanted to leave her mountain paradise for training opportunities closer to the ocean.

“One of my main criteria for where I wanted to go to school was to have it be at sea level,” said Swirbul, who trains and goes to college in Anchorage, Alaska. “Moving to sea level was a really important step in my career because I developed a lot more power and more strength and you are able to train at a higher pace, so you are able to do more race simulation and race-like movements at sea level when you have more oxygen available and the ability to not cross the redline quite as quickly.”

Training and competing at altitude has long been popular among elite athletes. As the body adapts to the lower oxygen levels, it can make competing at lower elevations all that much easier. However, it’s not necessarily a guarantee of success and can come with its own downside.

It can take months to truly acclimatize to higher elevations, say above 10,000 feet, where many foot races and ski mountaineering events are held here in Colorado. And as long as it can take to develop those lungs, only a few weeks back at sea level can undo all that work.

“The more you live here, the longer you live here, the more it lingers and the faster you get it back,” Aspen’s Ted Mahon said. “There are no shortcuts. Your body either is acclimated or isn’t. People show up to races at altitude and if they don’t have the time or the ability to get acclimated, they are going to notice it pretty quickly.”

Mahon, along with his wife, Christy Mahon, is a noted endurance athlete who has finished the famed Hardrock 100 endurance race a mind-blowing 10 times. Part of the reason for his success is having spent years training above the tree line.

Training at altitude has less to do with oxygen and more to do with red blood cells. It’s the hemoglobin in those cells that transports oxygen through the body, and the amount of hemoglobin in the blood increases the higher you go. So, when an athlete trains at elevation long enough to develop a higher hemoglobin count, going back to a more oxygen-rich environment can make one feel almost superhuman.

However, as was the case for Hoffman, this sort of training helps more in terms of endurance and can limit the development of those smaller skills that are honed in during hours and hours of high-intensity training, which comes easier at sea level.

“It definitely impairs your ability to recover and you can’t train quite as hard. You can’t get quite as much volume,” said Carbondale’s Sean Van Horn, another noted endurance athlete. “I do think the body adapts. Over years it seems you get used to that stress due to lack of oxygen.”

Being an endurance athlete comes in many forms. A halfpipe skier, for example, doesn’t sound like someone who needs a great cardio capacity, but it certainly can have its benefits.

“The endurance needs to be there because it’s all of your energy, everything, in a matter of 35 seconds,” Aspen Olympian Alex Ferreira said of a run through the halfpipe. “I get a lot of my stamina endurance actually from the trampoline. It’s so much energy bouncing up and down. What might seem like a little amount of time, a half an hour, is actually equivalent to me running 12 miles, I feel like.”

Ferreira won an Olympic silver medal in 2018 and is the reigning X Games Aspen gold medalist in the ski pipe. Having grown up in Aspen, competing and training at altitude is all his body knows. He trains nearly every day and takes his status as a professional athlete seriously.

“I used to not work out nearly as much or really think it was effective,” Ferreira said. “Once I started doing it I realized it was not only effective for training and skiing purposes, but it was also helping me mentally. I was much happier psychologically. I was just doing a lot better.”

Simply being at altitude is only a small piece of the puzzle.

“If I’m being honest, there is a lot of science behind our sports because humans like to feel like they can control things,” Swirbul said. “But I think there is no one right way. If you believe in what you are doing that’s the only right way there is. You can live at 10,000 feet your whole life and you can probably be just as good as if you lived at sea level.”

Swirbul pointed out that many of her U.S. teammates, including 2018 Olympic gold medalist Jessica Diggins, are opting to not train at elevation this fall. With the World Cup season fast approaching, some athletes are opting for a camp in Lake Placid, New York, while others, like Swirbul, will go to Park City, Utah. It’s all a matter of preference.

“(Diggins) didn’t want to go to altitude at this time of year because it’s more exhausting and it’s harder to recover and it’s getting close to the season,” Swirbul said. “You see a lot of altitude skiers doing worse because they are not used to the pace and being able to push yourself a little bit harder and still be able to recover.”

Hoffman and Swirbul mentioned that some of the best cross-country skiing sprint specialists come from lower elevations — three-time Aspen Olympian Simi Hamilton is among the exceptions — while athletes coming from higher elevations tend to be better distance racers.

“I believe I had one of the biggest engines in the world, the biggest cardio aerobic capacities in the world and I think that came from growing up at 8,000 feet in the mountains,” Hoffman said. “On the flip side of that there are the Norwegians, who tend to be the best skiers in the world, think training at altitude all year round is insane and they would never even dream of doing that.”

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