Swimming at Altitude: Interview with Jeff Pearson Coach & National Open Water Swimming Champion

“At 6,000 feet, the race [Ironman Lake Tahoe] boasts the highest starting altitude of any Ironman with plenty of climbing, it may also earn the title of ‘toughest’ Ironman” http://triathlon.competitor.com/2013/08/photos/course-recon-ironman-lake-tahoe_81962

And I thought I was signing up for the pretty scenery and clean lake?  Shoot me now. Even Mark Allen, triathlon God, agreed.  Mark posted a comment on my Facebook wall about racing at Ironman Lake Tahoe.  He wrote, among other things, “DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE IMPACT OF ALTITUDE ON YOUR RACE!” Why is this?  Here’s a great website with information about the physiological effects of altitude: http://www.altitudemedicine.org/index.php/altitude-medicine/athletes-and-altitude

“Because of less oxygen available to the working muscles, exercise performance is decreased at high altitude. For example, it is impossible to run a mile at high altitude as fast as at low altitude. And this applies to any aerobic event, which is any muscle activity lasting more than two minutes. In addition one cannot expect to perform with the same intensity as at low altitude, and one’s pace has to be adjusted accordingly. This means running, cycling or walking a bit slower at high altitude, and taking more breaks and rest stops, to avoid exhaustion. For those who keep track of VO2 max, an overall measure of physical performance: VO2 max drops 3% per thousand feet of altitude gain, starting at around 5000 ft.”

“The body’s ability to utilize oxygen diminishes with increasing altitude. Even after acclimatization, this only improves a little bit and a person can never perform as well at altitude as they can at sea level. With increasing altitude, you need to take more air into your lungs, contributing to the breathless feeling that many athletes experience when first coming to altitude, and especially if trying to perform at the same intensity as at sea level. One of the processes in acclimatization important for athletes is the production of a hormone called EPO or erythropoietin. This hormone acts on the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. These cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. Increasing these cells effectively increases the ‘oxygen carrying capacity’ in your blood. However, this process takes weeks. EPO is a big topic among competitive endurance athletes.”

So where do I begin to train for this race?  For me the logical answer was to go to Lake Tahoe to learn how my body responds to altitude and to learn how to race in altitude. In particular, Mark Allen stated that “one of the things that will not be so easy is the swim”.  Lucky for me, I had an opportunity to learn from one of the best open water swim coaches, Jeff Pearson, a professional swimming coach with 20 years experience, which includes, the USA National Team.  As a swimmer, Jeff was also a member of the USA Swimming National Team and won the USA Swimming National Championship in the 10K open water.  Jeff still holds the United States Masters Swimming 2 mile cable swim National record. Jeff, his wife Kristy and son Ian moved to Truckee last October after coaching USAS teams for 20 years in the Sacramento area.  Jeff and his wife have always loved the mountains and wanted their son to grow up in Lake Tahoe.   Jeff’s move was perfect timing to host open water swim clinics to help Ironman Lake Tahoe athletes prepare.  His clinics were attended by professional triathletes, Team Every Man Jack and every day athletes like me.  At my request, Jeff recently hosted a special clinic just for my club, the Silicon Valley Triathlon Club and Team in Training. This clinic proved to be invaluable.   We learned:

  • How to handle a mass swim start, and the new self seated wave start
  • How to enter and exit shallow water (when to run, how to run and porpoising)
  • Sighting
  • Breathing in altitude
  • Drafting
  • Pacing yourself for 2.4 miles

swimclinic owsclinic2

Practicing one technique of shallow water exiting: skipping.
Practicing one technique of shallow water exiting: skipping.
Kristy & future Olympian, Ian
Kristy & future Olympian, Ian

I also had a chance to interview Jeff and ask him for advice on open water swimming and preparing for Ironman Lake Tahoe: The Hungry Athlete: What carbo load meals do you enjoy or what you have learned from your past racing experience and during training?

Jeff:  I think the most important thing is to focus on eating “real” food and balancing carbs with high quality protein and healthy fats.  Eating a huge plate of spaghetti is just going to spike your insulin and make you crash. Also, because endurance athletes have such a high caloric demand they tend to overload on gels, bars and sports drinks. The trade off is they don’t have much in the way of nutrients.  During heavy training, I think it is good to use high glycemic fruits and vegetables as the major carb source.  Here in my house, we are obsessed with sweet potatoes and yams!  One of our favorite recipes is to cut up yams and grill them in a foil pan with red onions, olive oil and garlic salt. Yum!  Of course, gels, bars and sports drinks have their place during training and racing, but I encourage people to look for opportunities to substitute real food where they can.

The Hungry Athlete:  What do you recommend we eat before the swim, particularly because most of us cannot drink or eat during the 2.4 miles which for some of us, can mean as long as 2 hours swimming without nutrition or hydration. Jeff:  Eating lots of high quality foods and being well hydrated during the 3-4 days prior to the race is probably more important than the pre-race meal. You want to make sure your glycogen stores are topped off and then eat whatever you normally eat on race day (but maybe more of it). The day of the race is not the time to introduce new foods into your diet.

The Hungry Athlete:  Do you recommend carrying a GEL to take, without water, during the swim?

Jeff:  Nutrition during an IM swim is an interesting problem, especially for slower swimmers that are spending upwards of 2 hours in the water. Once again, having your glycogen topped off and being well hydrated before the start are critical.  I would also stick a gel or two in your suit.  The 10 seconds it takes to down a gel is well worth it if it saves you from bonking later in the day (please take your empty gel packet with you!). Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good way to hydrate during the swim, so you will need to catch up during T1 and the bike.  The amount of gel you can tolerate without water is highly individual, so it is important to experiment with this prior to race day.

The Hungry Athlete:  What are your tips for preparing to swim at altitude?

Jeff:  Unfortunately, nothing can take the place of living at altitude, but there is a fair amount of acclimatizing that takes place during the first 72 hours at altitude, so I recommend arriving by Wednesday for a Saturday race.  Also, coming up for training weekends where you spend 48 – 72 hours sleeping and training at altitude will help you acclimatize quicker and sort our your paces and heart rate zones for race day.

The Hungry Athlete:  What is one of your favorite healthy recipes?

Jeff:  Green Chili Turkey Burgers is one of our favorite recipe’s that we borrowed. I highly recommend this recipe.  It is delicious and healthy.

The recipe can be found here: https://thehungryathlete.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/green-chili-turkey-burgers/?preview=true&preview_id=979&preview_nonce=5e15cb328a

For more information about Jeff’s Boost Swimming Clinic, check out the links below.  I highly recommend Boost Swimming! jeff@boostswimming.com www.boostswimming.com www.facebook.com/BoostSwimming