EUGENE, Ore. – Most years, Oregon Track Club Elite athletes migrate to the high desert climes of Flagstaff, Ariz., for several weeks of altitude training.
This year, 11 of the 14 athletes on the OTC Elite roster are currently living and training in Flagstaff, along with head coach Mark Rowland and team physiotherapist David Campbell.
The plan calls for each runner to descend to sea level at the appropriate time for their outdoor season opener. Until then, it’s a daily grind of running, lifting and recovering, and it can be a grueling transition.
For some, like first-year pros Sabrina Southerland and Drew Piazza, it’s their first experience attempting workouts at 7,000 feet or higher. The effort has left them both gasping for air.
“This is my first time just being at altitude,” Southerland said. “I’ve been struggling with my breathing on runs, but coach Rowland has assured me that this is normal. I have to remember that it’s OK for me to slow down the pace a little bit.”
Added Piazza: “The hard part is adjusting to the altitude. Not only does it make our training difficult, but the lack of oxygen also seems to be affecting my sleep and hydration.”
For others, such as Olympian Ben Blankenship, who has been coming to Flagstaff each spring for the past eight years, it’s like a second home. He views it as a place where he can block out all distractions, remind himself of why he loves the sport, and focus on getting as fit as possible.
Still, even for veterans of multiple altitude camps, those early days can be daunting.
“I would never describe Flagstaff as fun or rewarding,” Blankenship said. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed or exhausted from over-training. You have to find the right balance between resting and working out, and that balance is critical to having the training work for you instead of against you.”
“Everything is hard,” said Harun Abda, now in his fifth camp with OTC Elite. “Even going up the stairs at 7,000 feet is harder than running a lap around the track at sea level … but at the end of the day, it’s all worth it.”
“That thin air makes every run harder,” added two-time Olympian Sally Kipyego, who is still in her native Kenya as she prepares for the Boston Marathon on April 15. “It also takes longer to recover from workouts, so you have to be extra careful.”
The physiological benefits of training at high altitude are the main reason OTC Elite comes to Flagstaff. As each athlete gradually acclimates to the workouts, they acquire more red blood cells. This allows their blood to carry more oxygen and ultimately boosts their aerobic capacity. Those benefits begin to show up when they return to competition at sea level.
“We’re all going to be rolling on the track by the time we get back to Eugene,” Southerland said. “The hard work (in Flagstaff) will only make things easier in the long run.”
“We’re getting fitter everyday so that helps you keep going,” Abda said. “Like they said, suffer now and win later.”
The high altitude camp at Flagstaff also provides other advantages. Those who have participated in the past point to an opportunity to build team camaraderie through the shared experience of living and training together in a tough environment.
“I’m always excited to come to altitude training camp,” said two-time Olympian Francine Niyonsaba, a native of Burundi. “It’s enjoyable when you have a group of training partners. We live together, we go for groceries together, and we build team morale together. My teammates even taught me how to cook. It’s fantastic!”
“It can be fun to go to a place for several weeks just to do one thing – train,” Kipyego said. “And obviously, when you get to be in the same house with the entire team you get to do things together that normally you wouldn’t have done alone, like playing board games.”
It’s also a chance to discover new places.
“I really enjoy being able to explore different parts of the world,” Hanna Green said. “It’s nice to change up the scenery and try out new trails and places to run.”
Most of the OTC Elite crew will remain in Flagstaff through the month of April, with individual race plans determining when and where athletes will return to sea level. In the meantime, the heightened focus on training is a constant reminder of why they’re doing this.
“The biggest reason I come to Flagstaff is to remind myself why I love this sport,” Blankenship said. “Every day can be a challenge and it keeps the focus on what’s important. I do my best to be thoughtful and mindful in my every action and decision. I also love the moment when you start to find that edge of fitness – and how you have to adapt to that and handle it.”