Preparing for the Haute Route – a Discussion: Part One

sitelogo2I really didn’t have the time to do this, but the other day I found myself looking around the Haute Route site and came across a series of ‘subjects’ on training, written by a couple of different French experts of some sort. I thought, since writing blog articles about sweat puddles under my turbo trainer can only be so interesting, I’d reproduce the subjects and see what can be taken away.

Subject 1: Prepare yourself for the Haute Route
Jean-Baptiste WIROTH – PhD
Fonder of WTS – The Coaching Company® –

“ Everything depends in the objective”

In coaching, “everything depends in the objective”.
The characteristics of the goal will affect the substance of your training.

How to prepare yourself?

As the Haute Route is an alpine cyclosportive, you have to follow a specific training regime physiologically, technically and psychologically to reach the cols and stages in the best possible condition.

You are under unusual stress in mountain. The intensity of effort is sustained and the phases of recovery are minimal when cycling uphill. The way you are pedaling is different. The body cools when cycling downhill, thus contributing to elevated energy expenditure and reduced muscle efficiency.

The sequence of stages does not enable you to recover completely, especially since every finish is at altitude!

What seems important to us:

– Optimize your body weight. This point is fondamental. The steeper the slope is, the more significative the gain from weight loss is.

– Improve your endurance climb. The effort is sustained and intensive during a climb, especially in the mythical cols used by the Haute Route. It is therefore essential to be able to ride well with sustained power without getting in the red.

– Know how to recover effectively when cycling downhill between ascents.

– Train your body to recover quickly to your effort is maintained from one stage to another without problems. This will require mastering the techniques of recovery and avoiding mistakes!

– Adjust yourself to the altitude to avoid being troubled at the summits of cols which are at an altitude higher than 2000m and to recover efficiently from one stage to another.

Nice and concise. Here are a few notes/questions. Comments/answers much appreciated:

1. Why do you expend more energy as the body cools down on descents? I don’t quite understand that one, although I think I should.

2. It goes without saying, but the ‘weight optimizing’ point is well taken! This, I’ve noticed, is absolutely crucial when doing long, steep climbs, and every 100 grams counts.

3. The comment about ‘sustained power’ is also a great one and, from the little experience I have with these things, something many don’t realize till they do a 15 km climb that has no respite at all. There’s really nothing like it.

4. How can we ‘recover effectively when cycling downhill’? Eat? Pedal? I usually can’t do either!

5. He has more on this later, but the ‘recovery between stages’ thing is going to be huge. Coach Rob is already putting lots of brain power into this one, but truthfully, I can’t imagine myself not having one or two bad days with so much constant climbing.

6. Altitude is never a problem with me, at least in the Alps, but I’ve seen people affected at not much over 2000 meters before. It’s a valid point.

33 thoughts on “Preparing for the Haute Route – a Discussion: Part One

  1. As I sink lower and lower into my armchair I can only wonder at youthful enthusiasm. These seems very good aims to have in training. Perhaps you can devise a retractable thermal vest for downhill sections.

  2. I would be curious what you come up for recovery days. We’re tentatively (hopefully) planning to do some multi-day climbing events, but preparing for 7 days in pretty difficult. Have no idea how we’ll respond to day 4 or 5. Although I think the daily massages will make a huge difference.

    • You and I both, Aaron…and I guess the rest of the team for that matter. It’ll all be new territory, which makes it so exciting. I’m terrible at ‘recovery’, to be honest, so I’ll have to control my urge to have a quick stretch and a victory beer after every stage! Keep me in line, will you?

  3. Well you asked for it Gerry. Here’s how I suggest we approach the questions you’ve posed. (Blog Alert – very long answer).

    I did my best simulating the Haute Route experience this fall at my place in Arizona to see how my body would react to the rigors of daily training on the hilliest route in the Superstition Mountains on the Apache Trail. I rode a little over 1500km in 15 days with one day off that came after 8 days of riding. In addition to this, I learned lots while riding, on the very roads we’ll be racing on in Haute Route a summer ago. Let me use these test runs to do my best at answering your questions:

    1. Why do you expend more energy as the body cools down on descents? I don’t quite understand that one, although I think I should?

    I personally experienced this first hand in the Alps and paid the price of under estimating the energy expenditure during my second day on the final climb up Alp d’Huez. I didn’t realized how hard the body works to keep itself warm while descending these high cols. For example, when I reached the summit of the Col Agnel (over 9000ft above sea level) the temperature was only 4C and my vest wasn’t and arm warmers weren’t enough to keep me warm. The result was uncontrollable shivering the whole way down and all I was wishing for was to get to the climb up the Col d’Izoard to warm up. My learning was to use a long sleeve jacket to keep the core temperature high, because you expend significant energy to stay warm, which could be used for climbing later in the stage. Here’s a 10 minute video I put together of those two days in the Alps with my daughter sagging and filming to give you an idea how tough these climbs are:

    2. It goes without saying, but the ‘weight optimizing’ point is well taken! This, I’ve noticed, is absolutely crucial when doing long, steep climbs, and every 100 grams counts.
    The combination of your body weight and the weight of your bike combined is what counts. So every kilo you carry up the hill burns extra energy to maintain the equivalent power output. The lesson here is to reduce your body weight to the optimal point where you maximize performance without compromising health. Tour riders are so lean, they are open to any virus they come in contact with. I’m not saying we get down to 2 and 3% body fat, but certainly under 10% should be the goal.

    3. The comment about ‘sustained power’ is also a great one and, from the little experience I have with these things, something many don’t realize till they do a 15 km climb that has no respite at all. There’s really nothing like it.

    I find climbing long hills similar to long (40 to 50km) time trials. So even if you don’t have access to a local hill that’s 10km+ long (which you do, I think they call it Mt Ventoux), you can still simulate the effort by doing long sustained time trial repeats of 30 minutes each at a high tempo, or just under your Anaerobic Threshold. Take a note, you’ll be seeing lots of these in your training plan this year.

    4. How can we ‘recover effectively when cycling downhill’? Eat? Pedal? I usually can’t do either!
    As mentioned in the answer to question #1, you have to stay warm, so let’s not give away cheap energy reserves while descending hills just because we didn’t have a jacket to put on. In Haute Route, they usually have food at the top of each Col. It is worth the short stop to pick up some food to restock the engine room. Depending on the athlete’s metabolism, we will be burning somewhere between 700 to 1000 calories per hour while riding. This means you’ll only have approximately 2 to 3 hours of fuel stored in the liver and muscles for the 4+ hour daily race. So you’ll have to eat something to ensure you don’t go into an energy deficit. This part of the equation is pretty straight forward. Make sure you bring real food that you’re comfortable eating and have tested it many times in training. There are many drink products that are suppose to replace food, but I always say, “chew your calories and drink to hydrate”.
    So the harder part; is what to drink to hydrate, and why. This is far more important than what you eat. If you don’t get your hydration part right, you won’t have to worry about food, because you’ll already be in trouble.

    Because of the extreme nature of climbing these large alpine cols, I found I sweat more than usual and that’s say a lot because I’m already a “sweater”. Sweat has fluid and electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and chloride. All electrolytes are important to your body’s performance, but sodium is by far the most important. A decrease in your body’s sodium concentration is called hyponatremia and can have some negative consequences, ranging from just having an upset stomach to excessive urination, incontinence and in extreme cases, death. There is anywhere from 200 mg to 1000 mg of sodium in a liter of sweat (1 kg or 2.2 lbs), so you have to find a way to replace it to perform well.

    Since sweat is both fluid and electrolytes, drinking water alone to replace the fluid you lose when you’re sweating is the quickest way to decrease or dilute your body’s sodium concentration. So if you’re exercising and you find yourself peeing a lot and feeling really noxious, like I’ve experienced a few times in races like the Ironman, or even long rides in the Arizona desert heat when the temperature goes above 100F, you’re probably hyponatremic and you’ll need to rehydrate with something with a lot of salt in it, or eat salty foods with a chaser of water.

    In theory, the best thing to drink when you’re sweating is your own sweat. But that would be pretty gross. That said the reason sweat is best is because it does not contain artificial colors, flavors, sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives or other strange ingredients you can’t even pronounce. Most sports drinks don’t contain enough electrolytes to be effective, they have too much sugar in addition to all the bad stuff that generally makes an athlete sick when they drink too much of it in tough endurance events.

    So this all sounds great, but what’s the lesson learned? Well, I have to tell you after 33+ years of experimenting with just about every electrolyte product ever made; I came across “SKRATCH”. I tested this electrolyte thoroughly while doing my 15 day test in the hills and heat of the Arizona desert and it passed, or I should say, I passed with flying colours. The reason why SKRATCH is so effective is because it closely resembles the chemical composition of sweat, with the addition of citric acid to make it palatable. Not once did I feel noxious or lacking sustainable energy and I even set a personal best on my 105km hilly course.

    5. He has more on this later, but the ‘recovery between stages’ thing is going to be huge. Coach Rob is already putting lots of brain power into this one, but truthfully, I can’t imagine myself not having one or two bad days with so much constant climbing.

    Knowing how to recover after each stage will be critical to our overall performance. If we do the right training, and understand how to maximize our recovery time, we shouldn’t have any bad days, just some might be better than others. After weeks of searching, I just ordered a recovery drink product that I will be testing over the next few months. I have my own concoction I make as a recovery drink today, but I won’t have access to the natural ingredients, or my VitaMix blender. In addition to what we eat and drink after each day of racing, we have to be mindful of how we treat our bodies. I found leg elevation while lying down and wearing compression socks for at least 3 hours, while staying out of the in a cool environment definitely accelerates the recovery process. So bring a good book or iPad and catch up on some reading while relaxing and letting the body heal itself from the day’s exertion.

    6. Altitude is never a problem with me, at least in the Alps, but I’ve seen people affected at not much over 2000 meters before. It’s a valid point.

    I’m fortunate that I live in Calgary, which is right at the foot of the Rocky Mountain, at an elevation of 4000 ft above sea level. Altitude has never been a problem for me either. But I too have seen guys that live at sea level struggle at moderate heights. Many of the Cols in Haute Route are at least 8000 to close to 9000 feet above sea level.

    • Rob, I wouldn’t have expected anything less from you for your comment – thanks for the excellent tips and ‘lessons’.

      1. I spent about 20% of my time shivering my ass off during this year’s Etape Act Two, so I understand what you’re talking about. I suppose I was just wondering how much energy that actually expends. I suppose it’s substantial. I found that I did OK, energy-wise, on the race partly because I did as you suggested and took real food at nearly every food station they had on the route. That was my mistake in Act One and I paid for it on the last climb of the day.

      2. Good point about reducing weight on the bike as well. I think that’s the part everyone will have an easy time doing! Under 10% body fat will be a first for me, but it has to be done. If there wasn’t a reliable way to measure this (I don’t think my scales tell the truth) do you think that aiming for a particular BMI would work?

      3. Gulp.

      4. Excellent points here, especially on the ‘salt’ factor. My preferred drink is water, just like you, but I suppose we’ll have to take more than just that to keep the body nourished. Do you think there is a way to accomplish this without resorting to a substitute drink, like Skratch, i.e. drink water and get the other stuff from food along the way?

      5. 3 hours of leg elevation sounds like a lot, but I guess we won’t have much else to do after each stage. At least now I won’t have any good excuses for not updating the blog daily.

      6. In my experience (finally I have more than a little!) there’s nothing you can do about altitude, except going to it…or maybe a ‘boy in the bubble’ tack…

      • Go for it. I’m using there stuff regardless. Best product on the market. I assume you’ve used it. What do you think?

  4. A couple of blog posts about the 2012 version that might help:

    Just to pick up on a point made in another comment – ” This means you’ll only have approximately 2 to 3 hours of fuel stored in the liver and muscles for the 4+ hour daily race”. This is glycogen. We’ve also got huge amounts of fat stored (~7000 kcals in a kilo of human body fat, as it’s not pure fat). For a 70kg person, at 10% fat, that’s 49000 stored kcals. At lower intensities you’ll be burning more fat as a % of the total. You need glycogen to trigger the fat burning reaction, so running out is really bad as you won’t be able to effectively use the fat reserves either. For events like this the trick is to manage your stored glycogen as well as eating, hence you’ll be riding at relatively low intensity compared to doing a single day race. If I was doing a single 6 hour, I’d be battered at the end of it. At the end of each HR day I felt sort of OK.

    In summary – so long as you don’t go hard on the climbs, you’ll be fine. It’s all about sustainable effort over the 7 days.

    • Bryan, thanks for the great comment. Coach and I have had many a discussion on the ‘kindling-log’ (glycogen-fat energy) relationship in the past, mainly because it took a while to get it drilled into my head. It’s especially nice to get a comment from someone who’s done the HR. Can you comment on the issue of ‘recovery’, you think? That is, any particular tips on avoiding bad days along the way?

      • Recovery was a well rehearsed routine – which is a tip in itself. As well as training the cycling side, train the fuelling and recovery. For me this meant:

        – I took my own energy products out. Powder for on bike drinking, recovery drinks, gels and bars. I used their feed stations for the “real food” aspects. I know that I can tolerate these products over a week of riding (from a few training camps I’ve done). I also knew the rate of consumption I could handle in terms of grammes of carbs per hour.

        – For recovery: You get a “day bag” which is available at the end of the stage. I had a portion of recovery drink powder in this. On finishing (and after the initial 5 minute collapse) I’d pick this up and mix up the recovery drink and consume – so that’s in the first 10 minutes after finishing. Then I’d have a stretch – to a set routine – and then have the post-stage meal that’s provided. Lots of water to rehydrate. Then it was back to the hotel, shower and on with the compression tights. Most people used compression socks/tights for the afternoon/evening/night. I had one pair for the afternoon evening and one pair for sleeping in. Again, this is something I’d do at home after a hard ride. Snacking while lazing around – energy bars, Haribo, dried fruit, whatever. Ice cream towards the end of the week. Lots more water. An easy walk before the evening meal – which was generally quite carby but not too heavy – then in bed by about 10pm for the 6am wake-up!

        I didn’t have any massages but lots of people did. The challenge was having to wait a while – they gave out tickets with estimated times on them, and often that was a few hours after you’d finished. Out of our team of 5 people, one got massages most day, two had them a couple of times and two of us just stretched. It’s very personal though!

        I can’t stress enough how important pacing over the week is. If you want to really attack something, do it on the time trial (though lots of people took it easier) or wait til the last day. It’s the fatigue that builds up over the week that gets you.

        So, my fuelling was well rehearsed, and I did the same for recovery as I do after my hard rides at home.

      • Hi Gerry,

        Like Bryan, my recovery was also a daily routine. I would first immediately pick up my day pack, and park my bike in the bike park. Inside the day pack I would store an water bottle with whey protein and a home made sports drink mix with sugars and electrolytes – then I’d fill the bottle up with fresh water and shake to mix… After this, I’d pick up a massage ticket, grab a shower, then either massage or eat, depending on the estimated massage time. After the shower, I’d put compression socks on for the remainder of the afternoon. Once in the hotel room, I’d usually lie on the bed with my feet up against the wall for a while as well. I also own a compex which I would use each evening before the rider briefing.

        For me, the massages were definitely helpful. You could also pick your favorite therapist after trying a few the first stages. It is true though that middle to back of the pack finishers had quite a wait, but you definitely don’t have to sit in line, you just return at your estimated time.

        Eating dinner is a key point often overlooked by people initially. Make a plan to get to a restaurant early (ahead of the other 600 riders) – even scope them out during the afternoon and reserve a table if possible. Most of the finishing towns are limited in the number of restaurants and servers, so if you are not careful, you may end up eating a 10pm – not good for the 6am wakeup the next day… Even ordering quickly once you are there can mean 30 mins to an hours earlier receiving your food. The problem is simply that everyone arrives at the same time, and the kitchen only has a certain throughput if you know what I mean. The rider’s briefing is important but often dragged on too long, so we would sometimes leave a bit early to get to the restaurant when it opened (usually 7 or 7:30pm).

        • I’m going to make a bigger effort this year at recovery. It seems that it will be crucial for HR. Great comment on the dinner problem, too. I’ve heard this one before and it worries me a little. I wonder if the organizers might put try and give restaurants at the stations some friendly advice to have a few more staff on hand this year..? I’ll definitely try and grab an inconspicuous spot by the exit at the evening briefings for that quick getaway. Great advice.

  5. Bryan – thanks so much for your comments and ‘Real-Life” experience. I’m very well versed in how to prepare and race long, hard single day event, but a 7 day stage race is very different, so I’m pulling on 33+ years of endurance racing an coaching, along with material I’ve read, personal training camps, etc. but all this falls short of actually doing the event. So your comments are gold to Gerry and I. I have one question for you if you don’t mind. What would you do differently given what you know now? And I guess I have a second question too, are you dong this year’s race?

    • Great questions! Um, my biggest issue was hot feet – they were swelling in the heat and compressing the nerves between the metatarsals (or something like that…). The final climb each day was pretty agonising. So, I’ve got new shoes with a wider front section and in theory a “metatarsal button” to spread the bones out more. I’ll also take my old old shoes which I know are very wide at the front. Apart from that, not much. I took too much food with me, but better that than too little. My training pre-event went well, I paced myself well and my fuelling and recovery plans worked out. I knew going into it that I was in my best shape ever, and we’d done a week in the Dolomites in the Spring so I was confident about the altitude and the descending. Actually, the Dolomites was great prep – about 75% of the Haute Route distance and climbing, including Stelvio from both sides.

      I’m signed up for the Haute Route Pyrenees next year – a new challenge, though I’ve done a trans-Pyrenees trip from North to South.

      I was pretty surprised about how much fun the trip was – I was expecting to finish thinking “never again”, but instead we were discussing doing next year on the flight home. I’m not a super-athlete and my goals were to firstly finish each day within the limits and secondly finish top half, which I just about did. If you train properly and plan well (which I get the impression you’re doing!) you’ll be fine.

      (If it makes any sense to you, my FTP was about 4.3w/kg)

      • Bryan – thanks so much. Dial us in any time you have a thought that comes to mind as Gerry and I always interested in people that have actually competed in ths race.

        Regarding your feet. This is a common question that I’m asked by riders all the time and it’s something I have lots of experience with, as I have second home in Mesa Arizona and it can get very hot. (I rode this past fall one day and the “average” temperature was 45C). Needless to say, hot feet can be an issue. The first thing I always look for is poorly fitted shoes or inferior sole inserts. But, given your comments on this blog string, I don’t think that’s your issue. I came across some great ankle height compression socks from Specialized and now they’re the only sock I wear while riding. My feet feel great regardless of what type of riding, or how hot it is. I also have a pair of the new ultra light weight Specialized S-Works shoes to replace their predecessor.

        • Suze: Hey, we went to the Berkshires in September! Beautiful countryside, we did a week driving around New England. My Pyrenees trip is covered starting from
          I see from your blog we’ve done some of the same cols!

          I notice one of the VC team is from Reading – that’s about 15 miles from me, a couple of our team live there.

          Robert, thanks for the tip on the socks – I’ll try them out. I’ve got a pair of S-Works shoes in the house but I can’t have them until my birthday in a couple of weeks! And to answer your other question, 67kg for the HR (147lbs), about 68kg at the moment.

      • Bryan, I have suffered from the same thing in the past, so this discussion is great. I don’t own compression socks at the moment, but will put them on the ever-growing x-mas wish list I’ll be using to justify a whole host of stuff.

        And for the record, I have no idea what FTP is. Is it your power output?

      • Yes, perfect sense and I forgot to mention, for those that are unfamiliar with Functional Threshold Power, anythng over 4.0w/kg is very impressive.

  6. Bryan,

    I’m loving reading and learning from all of these comments. Just went to your site and learned that you live in Berkshire, Eng. (I’m in Berkshires, US) Hope you will post everything you think of about the Pyrenees HR. I will never ride an HR, but seem to be obsessed with the Pyrenees. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s