I have a client who is an avid cyclist, and about a year ago, we determined that nutritionally he was a protein type. He has had great results with the diet, but recently complained that when training in high altitudes, he lacks energy. Any suggestions on some changes he should make in his nutrient ratios?
A fall in energy levels is not all that uncommon among athletes who run, pedal and climb way up high, largely because they have not taken into account the change in nutritional requirements that come with altitude training. Here are some reasons why your client might not be feeling like the Energizer Bunny these days.
- Hydration: Acclimatization to higher altitudes causes a reduction in total body water and blood volume. Plus, the air is colder and drier, so additional fluid is lost through respiration (breathing). These increased losses necessitate greater fluid intake than that at sea level to maintain fluid balance. Hence, you need to evaluate your client’s fluid intake while training at altitude and ensure that it is above what he is normally guzzling before, during and after rides closer to sea level. Dehydration can very much be an energy zapper.
- Carbohydrates: Exposure to high altitudes reduces the utilization of fat stores for energy production during exercise in favor of increased carbohydrate oxidation. In other words, when he is cycling at lower altitudes, he will use fewer carbohydrates for energy than at altitude, even if the exercise time and intensity is the same. So yes, you may need to adjust his macronutrient ratios by bumping his overall carbohydrate intake somewhat to make sure his glycogen stores are getting replenished and his blood sugar is not dropping too much, which would cause fatigue. You may also want to encourage carb consumption during the training rides at altitude (somewhere around 60 grams per ride hour) to meet some of this need.
- Calories: Although carbohydrates are an important fuel for altitude training, probably the most important of all nutritional considerations is that of maintaining an energy balance. Basal metabolic rate increases at altitude. So it is important to increase your client’s daily energy intake (from protein, carbs and fat) to match this increase in metabolism. Perhaps your client has lost muscle mass and overall body weight from the increased demands for altitude training? Undeniably, this could cause a drop in energy levels.
- Iron: When the environmental oxygen is low, the body needs to adapt to increase the circulation of oxygen around the body. Increasing hemoglobin in the blood is one way this is achieved and part of the performance benefit that comes with training high and competing low. However, there is an increased need for iron to support the production of hemoglobin, meaning an increase in dietary requirements of this mineral. So make sure he is eating plenty of iron-loaded protein foods like red meat, lentils and poultry.
In summary, try adjusting his fluid, carbohydrate, overall calorie and iron intake, and see if that puts more zip in his pedal stroke.