The Running Review
Posted by Kerry Harty on June 25, 2011 at 8:30 AM
Altitude training plays a vital role in the life of a top distance runner. The National Centre for Altitude Training at Font Romeu in the South of France boasts an impressive training environment and many top athletes, such as Paula Radcliffe, spend time here each year. Irish elite runner Kerry O’Flaherty Harty, who has recently been spending some time training at Font Romeu, has been speaking to James Sullivan about the ins and outs of training at altitude.
James: Thank you for taking the time to talk to The Running Review. To begin with, can you explain the importance of altitude training and the particular benefits it has on the body?
Kerry: Distance runners need oxygen to generate the energy. At altitude, here in Font Romeu at 6,000 feet, there is less oxygen than at sea level so there is an important training effect over and above training at sea level – the body responds by producing more red blood cells and haemoglobin. This increases the oxygen carrying capacity in the blood and has a positive impact on returning to sea level to race.
Different runners react in different ways, I normally see more than a 10% increase in key indicators after 25 days living high. The effect lasts for around a month after leaving altitude, so some runners, although not myself at the moment, sleep in an altitude simulator tent back at sea level. In effect these conditions are the natural ones for the Kenyans in the Rift Valley and the Ethiopians in Addis Ababa.
James: You are currently based at Font Romeu in France doing a stint of altitude training. Each year how long do you spend training at altitude?
Kerry: I try to spend at least 21 nights each time I come here at altitude for the full benefit. Basically the longer the better but it needs to be worked around competitions. At present, I come out in April-May and spend up to four weeks in preparation for the summer season and then again usually in October-November for the same amount of time in preparation for the Euro Cross-Country Championships in December.
James: Is altitude sickness ever an issue for you or your training partners when training at altitude at Font Romeu? What is the best way of preparing for the sudden increase in altitude? How easy do you take it the first few days? How long does it take to build up to full training when at altitude?
Kerry: I have always been lucky when it comes to training in Font Romeu at altitude. I first came out here in the summer of 2006. I adapted very well after a few easy days running (recovery pace) but could feel the lack of oxygen when climbing hills (you get a little out of breath faster and you can feel the burn in the quads).
I am usually fine with two days easy running (2 runs each day) and then the third day put in a low end tempo run. At the end of the first week I usually put in my first track session. The secret is not to overdo it in the first week.
I have never experienced altitude sickness but track sessions are always challenging with the lack of oxygen and normally the intervals between repetitions will be slightly longer than at sea-level.
James: How high above sea level do you train at? Does this vary depending on the type of session?
Kerry: We are at 6,000ft here in Font Romeu. As well as the track there are also lovely forest trails. Most of my training is done at this height. We also drive down to Lac de Matemale to do some recovery runs and longer tempo sessions as it is quite flat and the altitude is approx 5,100ft.
Sometimes in the mountains the weather can turn quite quickly. At the minute we are having wall to wall sunshine, but the next day we could wake up to rain or even snow. If that is the case we can drive 20 minutes down the valley into Spain to train in a place called Llivia (at 4,000ft) or take a bit of a longer drive (just over an hour) to Perpignan and train at sea level there. I must say though that this rarely happens, indeed not at all on the current trip.
James: How do your training sessions vary at altitude from at sea level? Do you train at the same intensity at altitude as you would at sea level?
Kerry: I would do between 60 and 70 miles per week, much the same as at home. I use the pulse monitor to ensure that the effort is right. Over the period of a few weeks I would find that the pace of easy recovery runs might get 30 to 45 seconds per mile faster as the body adapts to the altitude. It is the same for tempo runs – the heart rate is the key indicator.
Times in track sessions will be down slightly (‘respect the altitude’ and indeed recovery intervals might be slightly longer. Having said that I did 16x300m off 1 minute intervals just as at sea level (thanks Coach Rodgers) – it depends on the training effect we are trying to achieve.
James: What would an average week of training in Font Romeu be like, specifically in terms of total mileage and key sessions?
Kerry: My first week here was a 70 mile week including recovery running, 3 tempo running days and one session. My recovery days also included hurdle work as I am preparing for the Steeplechase. My first session was the 16x300m mentioned above. My first two tempos were over 20minutes and the third was 2x10min tempo with 6x10sec hills in between.
James: Looking at Font Romeu specifically, what facilities are available there for top level athletes? Why have you chosen there over other well known locations such as Flagstaff in Arizona?
Kerry: I first came out to Font Romeu in 2006 because I had read about how Paula Radcliffe loved to train here and thought I would give it a go. I fell in love with the place and in 2007 looked into buying an apartment with my coach and partner Richard Rodgers. I have not yet had the opportunity to try somewhere different and now that we own our own place it just make sense to come back here as it also really is an inspiring place with athletes from many nations and the climate and scenery are brilliant (Font Romeu boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year).
For athletes Font Romeu has a 400m track, gyms, 50m & 25m swimming pools, bikes to hire for cross training if you wish and hundreds of different forest trails to explore. There are many thermal baths situated locally were we are able to go and relax and plenty of little restaurants and cafes if you fancy a night off cooking.
Another good thing about Font Romeu is that nearly every doctor here is a specific sports doctor and for less than €20 a ‘same-day’ appointment is possible. If you are unfortunately carrying an injury the doctors here can sort you out a scan on the same day and have the results in by the evening time all for a fraction of the cost and time it takes back home. I have experienced this top service whilst I have been out here myself.
There is also a medical laboratory here in Font Romeu and you can get your full bloods taken with results back within three hours for approx €32.
So Font Romeu has everything a runner needs and is close enough to Spain or the coast to take a trip if the weather does turn. It’s also very accessible with flights from the UK & Ireland to Toulouse, Girona, Perpignan and Barcelona – all within two hours drive. Finally waking up to the spectacular mountain view outside my balcony window every morning is just a fantastic start to the day.
James: Does your dietary habits differ when training at altitude?
Kerry: Not really, I tend to eat the same. Some days the appetite may be bigger than others but it can be down to the fresh mountain air, how much you have trained or maybe how you feel after a session. I try to have a good breakfast before my first run, then lunch, a snack before my second run and a good dinner. I try to eat more iron whilst I’m here so I will eat red meat and spinach…
It is hard to resist the pastries in the bakeries but I still allow myself the odd treat after a good hard track session… well I have earned it
James: Some people say that the benefits are mostly gained from living at altitude rather than actually training at altitude. Would you agree with this? What are your thoughts on the “Live High, Train Low” principle?
Kerry: I think it’s ‘horses for courses’ on this one. I am happy to train low from time to time as it is the recovery between sessions where most of the altitude training stimulus is derived. I think it’s important to reach the 6,000 feet threshold level for sleeping. The key is to use the heart rate as a proxy for effort – high or low training then – it doesn’t really matter.
James: At what point do you believe the altitude becomes too high for an athlete to benefit from training at? It is almost unheard of for athletes to train at 3000-4000m above sea level. What effects on the body would training at such excessive altitude levels have?
Kerry: I’ve spoken to some girls that have trained in Addis Ababa – it takes a lot more getting used to – ultimately it’s all about increasing the red blood cells and haemoglobin. Once you get too high, then it can be difficult to train with enough intensity to stimulate the required changes.
James: The use of altitude tents have been the subject of a lot of debate and some people question whether it is morally right to use them. What are your views on altitude tents?
Kerry: If you can afford to have one I think it’s fine – it’s no different than living full time at altitude like the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes. Some athletes have full time jobs and don’t have the time to travel to altitude camps. I would like to have one at home but as a full-time non-funded athlete I just cannot afford one, so if you know of anyone who has one on offer I would gladly snap one up for use at home
Again, an altitude tent can sustain the better physiological conditions all the year round and morally I would have absolutely no issue with it.
James: Do you believe it is possible in this day and age for a distance runner to not integrate altitude training into his/her training schedule and still compete at the very highest level? Especially considering the current dominance of the Kenyans and Ethiopians, all of whom have lived their entire lives at altitude.
Kerry: Well, altitude training has worked for me over the years and also many other athletes. But it is important to note that not everyone will react the same way to altitude so I guess you have got to try it a couple of times to see if it works for you. Probably it’s not absolutely necessary but in this day and age when every fraction counts it is probably necessary.
James: Many Irish athletes use Monte Gordo in Portugal for warm weather training. Have you been there? Do you feel Irish distance runners would be better off spending their money going to Font Romeu?
Kerry: I have never been there but did go close by to Albufeira for the Euro Cross in December. I’m told that for distance runners the trails in Monte Gordo are limited. I would definitely believe that altitude is more beneficial over sea level training for endurance runners. We have had 25 degrees at 6,000 feet this trip!
James: You own an apartment at Font Romeu and rent it out to several runners a year. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
Kerry: Yes, it’s situated in the Grand Hotel which is a 100-year-old hotel converted into private apartments. Our apartment is a corner apartment on the south-side looking out to the Pyrenees from the living room and bedroom windows. It gets the sun all year round and is in a lovely wee spot.
The place sleeps 4-6 people and has a fully equipped kitchen and bathroom and free wifi downstairs.
I have recently published a website where people can get more information and have a look around the apartment and Font Romeu (www.fontromeuapartment.net).
We have been renting the place out throughout the year mainly to runners and will do good rates for athletes as I know how hard it can be as a runner on a budget.
James: Away from the glamour of training, what in the form of entertainment does Font Romeu offer to runners during their free time?
Kerry: Font Romeu has lots of good restaurants. Our apartment is located beside a golf course, gym and tennis courts and the main village centre is only 5 minutes walk away. There is a Casino and disco in the main village which also has a cinema. The track is a 10 minute jog from us and opposite the track you can hire horses for treks. Also beside the track is an ice rink.
The village below Font Romeu has a bowling alley and 25 minutes drive away situated in a gorge are thermal baths which are great to go to and relax. In the winter there is downhill skiing and if there is enough snow you can also go cross-country skiing.
At Lac de Matemale you can take a sleigh out with husky dogs in the snow in the winter or on a buggy in the summer or if there is no snow. There is also a lot of great mountain bike terrain.
James: That’s great Kerry. Best of luck over the coming year.
Kerry: A pleasure, thanks.