Why You Need an Altitude Nutrition Strategy
Performing at higher elevations can present a whole new obstacle for athletes: altitude. Unfortunately if you don’t live and train at altitude, you will be at a disadvantage compared to athletes who do. But there’s an altitude nutrition strategy you can use to help optimize your efforts.
(Bonus read: Four Ways to Race Faster at Altitude. This article reviews the short- and long-term physiological responses to high altitude exposure. One such effect is hypoxia, defined as the deficiency of oxygen reaching the tissue, effecting your muscles’ ability to work optimally.)
How Does Nutrition Factor In?
The right nutrition focus can put you in the best possible place to maximize blood volume. By doing so, we give the body the best possible platform even when hypoxia is a risk. Why blood volume? Because blood volume is related to iron, which is supported by the foods we eat.
Using Nutrition to Optimize Blood Volume
You train for race day with weeks of running, high-intensity interval training, and strength work. Why not prepare your nutrition for high altitude as well? You can do this by eating enough of the right foods to ensure adequate blood volume for race day.
Iron is a part of the red blood cells. It assists in delivering oxygen to working tissue and plays a role in energy metabolism.
Inadequate iron in the body can result in:
- Decreased blood flow
- Less oxygen delivery to the muscles
- Decreased performance
- Feelings of fatigue on exertion and reduced muscle power
Spartans have a demanding training schedule, typically with long duration, high intensity, large workload—and hopefully, a proper nutrition plan to support it. How do these factors affect iron levels?
Dilutional Pseudoanemia (Aka Sports Anemia or Athletic Anemia)
When an athlete begins an intensive exercise program, blood volume and red blood cell count both increase. However, the blood volume increases faster than the red blood cell count, so that at first the red blood cell concentration is lowered, and the athlete appears to have anemia. Over time, the body adapts and the concentration returns to normal.
Foot-strike anemia is caused by capillaries in the foot breaking as we get in our demanding runs. The red blood cell breakdown caused by this bruising occurs faster than the body can produce new ones, producing anemia.
Only a small percentage of iron from food is absorbed, so the recommended range is set high. If you are restricting your overall food intake, you may have increased risk of not getting enough iron. (Coffee or tea drinker? You may be absorbing even less. More on that later.)
Focusing on iron already? What about magnesium, zinc, folate, and B12? These vitamins and minerals help the body produce red blood cells and help iron do its job.
For the Ladies
If your menstrual cycle overlaps a race, you’ve got yet another obstacle to overcome—but not just for obvious reasons. Blood loss through menstruation also affects overall blood volume. This is another reason to focus on nutrition.
Looking for more ways to up your nutrition game? Check out the Spartan Meal Plan for 21 meals that will change your life.
Your Altitude Nutrition Strategy
Enough on cause and effect. Let’s talk about how you can put together a plan to maximize your performance.
1. Know What You Need
Here is how much iron you need to ingest, according to your sex (source: National Institute of Health):
- Men: 16.3–18.2 mg/day
- Women: 12.6–13.5 mg/day
2. Know the Best Sources
You likely know that red meats and leafy greens contain iron, but don’t forget dates, raisins, beans, tofu, molasses, pork loin, shrimp, and fortified cereals, as well as the following:
- Beef liver
- Bison meat
3. Foods that Inhibit Iron Absorption
Coffee addict? Tea drinker? Components of these drinks can inhibit iron absorption. There’s no need to give them up; just try to separate food intake from coffee or tea by at least an hour.
4. Know Your Levels
Odds are you wear a TomTom or other heart rate monitor, you look at food labels, and you log your miles (mentally or literally) every week. You know your training; now learn your levels. There are multiple tests available from your doctor to assess you current status. Ask your doctor to check these stats:
- Hemoglobin is the iron-containing, oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells. Normal values: men: 13.5–17.5 g/dl; women: 12.0–15.5 g/dl.
- Hematocrit is the proportion of whole blood that is composed of red blood cells; often referred to as the number of red blood cells per unit of blood. Normal values: men: 42%–52%; women: 36%–48%.
- Ferritin is an iron storage protein found in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Only a small amount is in the blood. This test will indicate the amount of stored iron. The lower the ferritin level, even within the “normal” range, the more likely it is you are iron deficient. Normal values: men: 20–300 ng/ml; women: 20–120 ng/ml.
I recommend that you check these levels at least twice a year: midway through your off-season and midway through race season (or three months before your focused event). It can take about three months to improve your overall status, so starting early will make a difference.
5. Evaluate Yourself, Then Make a Plan
If you aren’t already doing so, now is the time to pay attention to what you are eating. If you are already monitoring, it’s time to step it up a notch. For four to seven days, see how your intake stacks up. How many of the above foods do you eat daily? And how much? Using online nutrition trackers such as MyFitnessPal can help you track your daily intake.
Looking for an easy way to optimize nutrient absorption? Spartan-approved Athletic Greens premium superfood supplement has vitamin C to improve iron absorption (have a glass with your salad) and contains digestive enzymes that may help your body absorb the iron in your food. Excess iron, especially through supplemental sources, may be linked to heart disease. Your doctor can assess your lab values and make recommendations for iron supplementation if needed.
Whether you are getting ready to tackle a new level of elevation at the Spartan Race World Championship or trying to decrease daily training fatigue, the answer (once again) may lie in your choice of food. Food is not complicated. Spartan Race exists to rip millions of people off the couch and teach them that anything is possible with hard work and perseverance. Good nutrition, like any other goal, takes knowledge, commitment and discipline. For Spartans, food provides energy and nutrients that support an active, healthy life—that’s all there is to it.
SGX Coach Anne L’Heureux is a clinical dietician, elite Spartan Race and Head of Spartan Nutrition.