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Fact-Checking Outside’s Altitude Training Tips

No matter what I read about tackling a high-altitude race, I wasn’t convinced that minor training tweaks could actually affect my result. And as a fact checker for Outside magazine, I couldn’t resist the chance to test our online team’s fitness advice when I ran a 26.2-mile race in Leadville, Colorado, last month.

Maybe it was an altruistic pursuit, but it’s more likely that I needed an outlet for my growing nerves. Because Leadville is high (in at least one way I could confirm). The town is wedged between Rocky Mountain 14ers at 10,152 feet, and the course starts climbing right away.

Us mere mortals were resigned to hiking the inclines as the trail weaved toward the halfway point at Mosquito Pass (13,185 feet) where wind speeds hovered around 30 mph. To put it in perspective, climbers launch most Mount Rainier (14,409 feet) summit bids from Camp Muir, which sits at 10,080 feet. You know, the same height at which pilots used to tell you it was okay to turn on approved electronic devices. High.

So how does Outside recommend tackling the highest marathon in the United States? And more importantly, does our advice work?

“Avoid racing between 24 to 72 hours at altitude and instead head up the night or morning before.”

To avoid the ill effects of altitude on race day, we recommend heading up one to three weeks ahead of time to get acclimated. If that’s not doable, then avoid the window where symptoms typically set in: between 24-72 hours of exposure.

Since hanging out in Colorado for a week wasn’t something I could pull off, I got to Leadville 12 hours before the gun. Surprisingly, I felt no effects of the altitude (trust me, I was looking for it), but it definitely took a mental toll because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.


“Aim to spend four or more hours at 5,000-plus feet a few times in the month leading up to the race.”

Having experience training at altitude helps. When I moved to Santa Fe (7,000 feet), I was aware of the thin air the second I got out of the car. But three months of training here gave me a huge advantage over my fellow Midwestern competitors. On the course I met a guy from Oklahoma (as we were walking one of the ascents), and he mentioned that the tallest “mountain” he could find topped out at 1,400 feet. He’d never breathed air so thin, much less tried to run in it.


“Be sure to prepare mentally, as your race pace will be slower and dehydration sets in quicker.”

I’m pretty good at drinking water. I even nixed my usual night-before beer because Outside (for once) doesn’t recommend drinking booze. Starting the race hydrated is easy enough, but staying that way is a bit tougher. I took a few sips of water every 10 minutes or so, but it wasn’t sufficient to keep headaches at bay. As pressure built at the nape of my neck and temples, however, a quick chug of water reversed the advancing pain and allowed me to keep trudging on.


“Rather than trying to maintain your typical pace, consciously slow yourself down to avoid blowing up.” 

Unlike a sea-level marathon where a wall is expected late in the race (if ever), at altitude you might not know you’re bonking until you’re delirious and puking in the trees. For many, myself included, a finish at high altitude is as good as a win. I overheard the following advice on the course:

1. Don't do anything stupid. 
2. Just finish. 

One guy said this to another shortly after we passed a runner dry heaving around the two-mile mark. The altitude combined with the gnarly terrain (think snow, loose rock, mud) was responsible for a few bloody knees and faces as runners navigated the steep slopes. No need to do anything crazy, just keep it moving. 


And if all else fails?

“If you still end up feeling like crap the whole race, don’t sweat it. It’s not you—it’s genetics.”

I managed to finish on two feet, arms sticky with electrolyte water and a new tan line resembling a capped-sleeved wrestler's singlet. But I finished. I was waiting for symptoms of altitude to hit, but they never did.

The Bottom Line:

So after completing this 6.5-hour investigation, my fact check found that we’ve offered sage advice on executing a high-altitude jaunt, sans hypoxia and with enough stamina left to Instagram post-race. No noses growing here: it turns out (surprise!) that Outside's experts know their stuff.

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Those Planes Aren't the Problem

By now, you've likely seen the photos. On the afternoon of July 3, a train paralleling Montana’s Clark Fork River derailed at Atherton Gorge, sending payloads of soybeans, denatured alcohol (not for drinking, this is the stuff used in fuel), and Boeing plane parts into the water—and into view of stunned outdoor enthusiasts.

While photographs of the failure made waves in international news, the accident was actually more spectacle than disaster. “Since the denatured alcohol and soybeans were contained, the damage is very temporary,” Pat Saffel, fisheries manager of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks told Outside. “There was really no impact.”

The things that really hurt the Clark Fork, and American rivers at large, aren’t as conspicuous or visible as fuselages—they tend to be subtler, come on more gradually, and cause long term damage. Of the more-than 500,000 miles of rivers analyzed in the 2004 National Water Quality Inventory, the USEPA found that 44 percent of them were impaired.

For the most part, the biggest threats to rivers are results of our attempts to control them. America’s dams, constructed to retain water and create energy, damage downstream ecosystems, disrupt the flow of nutrient-rich silt, are aging, and have little water to hold back. As a result of damming and diversion—for agricultural, municipal, and residential use—some of the largest rivers in the world are running dry, requiring intensive cooperation between countries to maintain any flow at all.

We can damage waterways when we put them to use, but rivers get caught in the crossfire when we forget to include them in our plans, too. Fertilizer runoff is the leading source of water quality damage. The way watersheds are graded, this pollution, as well as stormwater runoff from cities, inevitably ends up in rivers and streams.

Groups like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, and Wild Earth Guardians—along with other watershed groups and the USEPA—spend lots of time and money restoring (or at least improving) rivers, but all it takes is one spill to send them right back to bad places. 

“From our perspective, this is a wake up call,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “As disturbing as this is, imagine if it’d been tankers full of crude oil, which are increasingly shipped through Missoula. We we lucky in this case that it was just airplane parts.”

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Cyclists: Shaving Makes You Faster

Good news, gentleman cyclists. The next time someone asks why you shave your legs, simply flex your bald calf muscles and say, "Science."

Last week, Specialized Bicycle Components released a video claiming shaved legs are significantly faster than furry ones. How much faster? They provide almost as much of an advantage as switching from a round-tube frame to an aero-style one, says Mark Cote, who does aerodynamics R&D for the California-based manufacturer.

“We were shocked,” says Cote. “The numbers dropped so much it set my bullshit meter off. I had to immediately check the equipment to make sure it was real.” 

Specialized opened its “Win Tunnel” in May 2013 as an on-site space to test the aerodynamics of its products—not the aerodynamics of body hair. (As far as we know, Specialized has no plans to move into the shaving market, though we have to say “The Shiv” would be a great name for a carbon-fiber razor.) 

But in January, pro triathlete Jesse Thomas showed up for a tunnel testing session. It had been almost a year since his last race and his manscaping habits had gone into 1970s territory. “I only shave before races because Lauren doesn’t like it,” says Thomas, referencing his pro-runner wife Lauren Fleshman. “I don’t know if she actually doesn’t like it or if she’s just saying that to make me feel better because I’m kind of a hairy guy." 

Apparently “kind of hairy” is an understatement. The Specialized researchers set up a scale (called the Chewbacca Scale, naturally) to rate the general hairiness of each of the six subjects they tested. On a scale from one to you-can-knit-it-into-a-sweater, Thomas ranked as a nine.

“I was actually semi-embarrassed,” says Thomas. But then he and Cote realized measuring his efficiency pre- and post-shave might be a good PR stunt. They got out a bucket, put on some rockin’ 80s jams and sheared Thomas.

“We’d tested a bunch of stuff earlier that day—kits, wheel, helmets—and the most change I’d gotten was like seven or eight watts from a super aero kit,” says Thomas. “We start up and Mark does 60-second tests—we usually do two—and he just keeps running one then another then another then another. He’s just staring dead-eyed at his computer.”

Cote was seeing a difference in efficiency translating to 79 seconds saved over 40 kilometers—twice what any equipment change had given Thomas during the entire day's worth of testing. That translates to roughly a quarter-of-a-mile-per-hour faster. 

“We’d spent three hours in the tunnel and I knew he was consistent,” says Cote, meaning that Thomas was capable of replicating the same form during each test to make sure results weren’t skewed. “We have cameras to double check that, and we checked everything afterwards—none of us believed it.”

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Over the next six months, Cote and his colleague Dr. Chris Yu tested five other hairy beasts in the “Win Tunnel.” Average riders saved 70 seconds per 40 kilometers after shaving their legs. To put that in perspective, Specialized’s aero Evade helmet gives an average advantage of 46 seconds over 40 km. Combine shaved legs and an Evade helmet, and you could save upwards of two minutes.

Cote will be the first to admit that the sample size is small and that it isn’t the kind of thing that’s going to end up in a peer-reviewed journal. Still, the results make sense. In 2000, NASA researcher Dr. Rabi Mehta found that a tennis ball’s fuzz affected its flight more than the size or the weight of the ball. In a wind tunnel, he determined that each fuzz filament on a ball added its own bit of drag—which is essentially what your leg hairs do when you ride.

“Shaved legs are just one more part of that speed formula,” says Cote. “It all adds up: the legs, the helmet, the aero frame. And this finally gives our girlfriends and our wives a real reason why we do this.”

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What Animal Madness Teaches Us About Ourselves

It all began with a deeply disturbed miniature donkey named Mac. One minute he’d cozy up to Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness, like a high school sweetheart. The next minute he’d chomp down on her exposed flesh like a deranged blind date.

Braitman, only 12 years old at the time, thought even then that Mac’s manic temperament seemed too bizarre to simply chalk up to normal donkey-ness. Today, Braitman is a TED fellow with a PhD in the History of Science from MIT, and her new book details the science and the psychology of mental illness in animals.

OUTSIDE: In your book, you say that animals experience complex emotions such as guilt, depression, and social anxiety. How can a deeper understanding of our pets help us better understand our own psychology?
BRAITMAN: Certain emotional states and problems are common across species. Take fear and anxiety. They help keep individuals safe in dangerous situations, but they can be problematic in situations where there is no real danger.

We also know that many of the same things you’d do to cheer up your dog—regular exercise, more time outdoors, stimulating surroundings, learning new skills—are likely to cheer up humans as well. The better we understand the emotional roller coasters that animals experience, the better we can understand our own emotions.

How are animals affected by mental illness and how can humans help?
From wombats to whales, animals suffer from OCD, PTSD, anxiety, phobias, mood disorders, and more. Many of these issues are healthy activities gone awry. For example, some OCD behaviors are extreme forms of grooming practices, like constantly licking paws.

Humans can help animals with these problems. I once owned a Bernese mountain dog named Oliver who hallucinated, suffered from crushing anxiety, and had canine compulsive disorder. We tried everything from behavioral training to more exercise to anti-depressants. You’ve heard of therapy animals—I was his therapy human. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. I helped Oliver and he helped me.

The film Blackfish (inspired by Tim Zimmerman's article in Outside) set off a firestorm of debate around the effects of captivity on killer whales and the unpredictability of their interactions with humans. What are your thoughts on keeping large marine mammals in captivity and teaching them to perform? 
I’m thrilled that this is part of a national conversation—there is no justification for keeping orcas in captivity. I believe we should make our zoos and aquariums more humane, but in the long run I would like to see all facilities transformed into places where humans can interact with creatures who do not need to suffer in order to entertain us. As far as I can tell, children are bored by the pacing polar bear, but they are entranced by the pig who runs over to them to get his back scratched.

What’s your take on new-age pet care options such as doggie massages and kitty chakras? How can we tune into our pets’ emotions without going overboard?
There are plenty of products aimed at desperate pet owners. Your dog won’t feel more relaxed if his shampoo smells like lavender or his biscuits taste like lemongrass. Massage is another story: it’s been proven to help humans suffering from emotional distress, and as long as the animal doesn’t mind being handled, it can help him too. However, the best way to tune into your pets’ emotions is cheap and easy—spend quality time with them and pay close attention to any troubling changes in their behavior.

You earned a PhD in the history of science, yet many of your conclusions stem from intimate personal experiences with animals that were close to you. What role should the classroom play in teaching animal lovers about their pets' emotions?
We should certainly learn about natural history, animal behavior, and even the neuroscience of emotion in school, but nothing compares to real-life experience. We need socialization time with animals to better understand them just like we need socialization time with people to learn how to behave and how to read their emotions.

How can prospective pet owners use your book to find the best possible companions for their families?
I hope my book helps people choose animal companions that they are unlikely to disappoint or be frustrated by. But honestly, just like when you first start dating somebody, chances are you won’t know they have a screw loose till it’s too late—that is, until you already love them. So if that’s the case, then I hope my book helps people feel less alone and more hopeful about their animals. As Darwin’s father told him, “Everybody is insane at some time.” Thankfully we can help each other heal.

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The Chromosome of Champions

South Africa’s Sport and Recreation Minister, Fikile Mbalula, said something so upsetting, the statement sparked a Twitter war, multiple news stories, and demands for an apology.

A journalist had asked Mbalula about the issue of racial equality on South Africa’s national teams, many of which are mostly white. His response, the Mail & Guardian reported, was this:

"You can't transform sports without targets," said Mbalula, who has battled with the issue of racial quotas for some time. But at the same time, South Africa wouldn't be like Kenya and send athletes to the Olympics to “drown in the pool."

For Kenyans and members of other African countries, the statement was political, another example of endemic South African arrogance toward the rest of the continent. For researchers around the world, the backlash showed just how taboo it’s become to generalize about athletic performance according to race. Perhaps that’s one reason why genetic testing is heralded as the future of sports science: it takes the touchy issue of race out of athletics.

Take the case of the head of a physiology department at a big research university who David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, interviewed. “He basically confessed to me that he was withholding data from publication because he found differences in his black and white subjects,” Epstein says. The study looked into exercisers’ response to a dietary supplement. The researcher told Epstein he was afraid that by saying there were biological differences between black and white subjects, he’d be implying there might be intellectual differences, an old, wrong, and highly inflammatory stereotype. “By falling prey to that notion, he might be perpetuating it,” Epstein notes. The result of this scientist’s fear: athletes are left without the knowledge of a potentially useful or harmful supplement.

But imagine if that researcher could specify the gene responsible for the response he found. Then he could say the gene causes a certain issue and, by the way, it happens to be more prevalent in white or black people. A perfectly PC result.

That’s what the researchers who discovered the ACTN3 or “sprint” gene were able to do. The ACTN3 gene has been shown to contribute to “the muscle’s ability to generate forceful, repetitive, muscle contractions,” as the University of Melbourne writes. In other words, writes Jon Entine, author of Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, it helps make fast-twitch muscles fast.

A study of 32 Olympic sprinters found that all of them had a functional variant of that gene. The study took the approach outlined above. That is, researchers identified a gene related to sports performance, then remarked on how frequently a deficiency of this gene occurs in certain populations, like Europeans (18 percent) and the African Bantu population (less than 1 percent).

“This raises the possibility that ACTN3 genotype confers differential fitness in humans, under certain environmental conditions,” the researchers wrote. A nice way of saying, essentially, that some black people may be more inherently gifted at sprinting than some white people.

Unfortunately, identifying specific genes, like ACTN3, and their purposes is tough to do. So at this point in time, relying on what little genetic knowledge we have to guide an athletic career can have disastrous consequences.

“There are some cases where a single gene causes a huge effect all by itself,” Epstein explains. The brain disorder Huntington’s Disease, for example, is caused by a single defective gene. “But in most cases, genes work in huge networks and each one only has a tiny effect.” Researchers don’t have a great idea of how that network works yet. So even if they find a gene related to athletic ability (and they have, in fact, already found at least 200) it’s still too soon to do much with it.

“To make a decision based on that gene would be like having a puzzle—you don’t even know how many pieces there are,” Epstein says, “and making a decision based on only one of them without any of the others. You might need that piece to finish the puzzle, but you have no idea what that puzzle looks like without all the other pieces.”

The ACTN3 study led people to conclude that it’s impossible to run super fast without a functional variant of that gene. That’s a dodgy deduction, and because now that it’s easy to drop $169 on an ACTN3 test, athletes who find they lack it may turn away from sports at which they could excel.

So while genetic testing has much promise—in both mitigating Mbalula-like controversy and maximizing an individual’s athletic talent—it still has a long way to go before it’s truly helpful. Right now it’s silly, Epstein says, to test for an athletic trait like sprinting ability indirectly through genetics “when you can test it directly with a stopwatch.”

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