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?
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.
PINOCCHIO RATING: 0
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.
PINOCCHIO RATING: 0
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.
PINOCCHIO RATING: 0
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.
PINOCCHIO RATING: 0
And if all else fails?
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.
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.
On May 27, an Ohio teenager was found dead in his home, the victim of a caffeine overdose. The tragedy could have fueled the energy drink debate, which has spiked in recent years and rages on due to recent lawsuits alleging drinks like Red Bull contain unsafe levels of stimulants. But no mention of these. That’s because the teenager, Logan Stiner, didn’t chug a Red Bull or a Monster Energy Drink before he died; he ingested caffeine powder.
Caffeine powder is your favorite stimulant in its purest form, either produced synthetically or extracted from foods that naturally contain caffeine, like coffee beans and kola nuts. It’s easy to buy the fine, white powder in bulk on the Internet. It’s completely legal, and there’s no age restriction. One hundred grams of the stuff costs just $9.50 on Amazon.
Why the heck would anybody buy pure caffeine? Mother Nature Network reports that it can “increase alertness, improve concentration, and enhance mood.” Caffeine has also been shown to improve athletic performance by warding off mental and physical fatigue, and reducing the perception of pain.
As the Washington Post reports, “energy-boosting foods racked up more than $1.6 billion in domestic retail sales” in 2012, up nearly 50 percent from 2007. But consumers know those are jacked-up prices, and some try to make their own. Enter caffeine powder.
Many people use the powder to make caffeinated beverages and foods on the cheap. But dosing is a huge concern. If you’re getting your caffeine from powder, it can be very difficult to mete out a proper amount without an electronic scale. And you can’t just mix the stuff into foods, or you risk spreading it unevenly throughout whatever you’re making. You need to dissolve it in a liquid first.
As Popular Science writes, a 2005 Forensic Science International article pegs about five grams as the potentially lethal limit for caffeine ingestion. That would require drinking more than six gallons of McDonald’s coffee, but only 2.5 teaspoons of caffeine powder. This is likely why there have already been a handful of caffeine powder-related deaths—including the Ohio teen. “Since it’s a powder, he probably [didn’t] know how much he was taking,” Stiner’s coroner told the Lorain County Chronicle Telegram.
Most powder manufacturers recommend taking in no more than 200 milligrams per day, or one-tenth of a teaspoon. As we’ve reported before, caffeine’s athletic benefits appear to top out at doses higher than three milligrams per kilogram of body weight (about 2.5 cups of coffee for a 150-pound person). After that there’s a plateau until you consume twice that amount, at which point negative effects emerge: jitters, headaches, and irregular heartbeat.
So choose your caffeine wisely. While there’s no doubt it can give you a nice boost, “it’s so lethal if taken in the wrong dose,” as coroner Nigel Chapman told Time. “And here we see the consequences.”
By all accounts, endurance coach and sports nutritionist Ben Greenfield walks the walk. The 9:36 Ironman—and often-shirtless purveyor of endurance training and nutritional information—is also an astonishingly fruitful producer of content. He has published 23 books in addition to his countless articles, blogs, podcasts, and videos that hit the Internet on a daily basis.
Greenfield is married with kids. He’s also on a travel circuit that would destroy Marco Polo. As a self-experimenter, Greenfield is systematically taking the newest supplements, collecting his own poo samples, and getting muscle biopsies—so you don’t have to. In his latest book, Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health, and Life, Greenfield offers up his hard-earned knowledge. Outside caught up with Greenfield at his home in Spokane, Washington, to see how he manages it all.
OUTSIDE: What led you to write Beyond Training?
GREENFIELD: Initially I wanted to write the book for the folks I coach and work with. These are people whose exercise a lot and are doing big things, like adventure races, Ironman competitions, and ultramarathons. Then I realized the sleep issues, mental fog, low libido, and lethargy of these ultra-athletes were also being experienced by CrossFitters and people working out for 45 minutes a day. People who weren’t doing the ultra-crazy stuff. I ultimately wrote it for exercise enthusiasts or people who are past the couch-potato phase—people who have taken that next step.
You use yourself as a test dummy for everything. How do you keep track of it all?
GREENFIELD: Yeah, I’ll generally try anything. Any supplement, biohack, or self-experiment. Using myself as an n=1 for digestion, fat loss, and strength has given me insight you can’t get from just reading the research. As for the practical, I generally do one supplement at a time. Then, I track relevant metrics, including my nervous system, on a daily basis.
How do you deal with the contradictory nature of health and nutrition research?
GREENFIELD: If you really pay attention, it doesn’t contradict itself. You just can’t rely on the media to explain it properly. You have to take what they say with a grain of salt, because they will get it wrong. Look into the research yourself, don’t just read the headlines.
What are the physiological goals of endurance training in general?
GREENFIELD: Anytime we’re trying to improve endurance, what we’re trying to do is increase mitochondrial density, which is associated with an increase in the duration one can exercise. We’re also trying to produce ATP—adenosine triphosphate, the biochemical way to store and use energy—to increase slow-twitch muscle density, glycogen storage, and our body’s ability to burn fat as fuel. There are basically two different pathways to achieve this. One is the traditional polarized training method where you spend 80 percent of your time aerobic and 20 percent going hard, or anaerobic. The other method, which is infinitely more time-effective, is what I call the “ancestral method.”
Can you describe the differences between the traditional method of endurance training and your “ancestral method”?
GREENFIELD: The traditional polarized (80-20) method of endurance training works. It’s what all the best professional athletes are using, and obviously it’s very effective. It’s just not efficient. If I had more time, I’d probably train that way because I enjoy riding, running, and swimming. The problem is it just takes too much time.
Most folks doing these long endurance events aren’t professional athletes. They are working, real people with jobs and lives who simply don’t have the 20 to 40 hours a week to take the traditional, continuous endurance approach.
There is a better way for those of us who aren’t paid to train. The idea here is you hack your environment. You try to spend all day on your feet—with a standing workstation, for instance. You move a lot and avoid the traditional office environment, which is sedentary. Instead, you move through low-level activity all day. Then, two or three times a week, you do short, high-intensity interval training (HIIT). A high level of fitness can be attained with around eight hours a week of Ironman training this way.
The ancestral method sounds a bit like CrossFit Endurance, championed by Brian MacKenzie. How is your method different?
GREENFIELD: CrossFit Endurance tends to do a lot more weightlifting. It also tends to combine a lot of weights with actual endurance training. This method reinforces improper biomechanics because you are forced to continue while heavily fatigued. It also relies upon building metabolic endurance with weights, whereas I think you should focus on the actual metabolic endurance, or HIIT training, while actually engaged in the activity you want to get better at. Use the weight room to build power, not endurance.
The book covers a wide range of options for recovery. What methods do you think are most effective?
GREENFIELD: I’m a fan of cold-hot contrast, of temperature fluctuation. This helps shut down inflammation and improves glucose tolerance. Plus, and this is going to sound cheesy, it just makes you tough.
Another really good one is compression, which helps improve blood flow to your muscles. I’ll even hang from an inversion table throughout the day to get blood through my head.
After hard workouts, I think topical magnesium delivered locally is very effective. Applying it directly on the muscles you want to recover will help mitigate DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). I use magnesium lotion on my muscles every day.
What should our main considerations be when it comes to nutrition?
GREENFIELD: When considering nutrition, I look at nutrient density and digestibility. Quinoa, for example, is very nutrient dense and has a lot of amino acids, but it’s not very digestible—the saponins make it resistant to digestion—but you can make it digestible by soaking it. Then it’s both nutrient dense and digestible. Sugar is super digestible but not very nutritionally dense. I like foods that have high levels of nutrient density and digestibility.
From there, you should try to match the macronutrient profile of our ancestors the best you can: enough protein to maintain nitrogen balance but not toxicity. It’s 40 to 50 percent fat, 20 to 30 percent protein, 10 to 30 percent carbohydrates. This can vary depending on different genetic ancestries, which could mean you might do better on a higher carb intake, for instance.
The message here is that we should not make our food choices based on what our government subsidizes. We can grow grain and corn pretty cheaply, but it’s not what we are hardwired to digest genetically.
The book offers lifestyle and environment suggestions that might surprise many people. What are some of the big ones that everyone can implement?
GREENFIELD: The big one is limiting your exposure to electromagnetic fields. There are literally thousands of studies showing the adverse effects of being constantly exposed to electrical signals. Integrity of cell membranes is compromised and affects neurological tissue. One of the best things you can do is change your environment so you aren’t exposed to it constantly. Turn off your Wi-Fi. I’m hardwired at my house. My cellphone is off all day long unless I need it. I don’t leave things on that I don’t need, and at night I turn off all electricity. I’m very, very careful with my exposure.
Also, be aware that most cleaning products can be harmful. A lot of them are simply toxic. Use natural soaps and shampoos, like Dr. Bronner’s. I use coconut oil as deodorant. If I can’t eat it without dying, I don’t put it on my body because the skin is a mouth.
Sum up the book for our readers.
GREENFIELD: The book is about becoming an optimized human machine. Once you tap into all these pathways, life becomes pretty cool. You can excel in your sport, have a great sex life, good brain function, a gut that works properly, low body fat, and a good-looking body.