Training at altitude in northern NM | Wheeler Peak lies majestically in the middle of the Enchanted Circle at a dizzying elevation of 13,161 feet, the highest point in New Mexico. Each summer many who summit complain they experience shortness of breath as they approach the top. This is because there really is less oxygen at higher altitudes and each gulp of air has less fuel for the muscles.
This lack of oxygen at higher altitudes makes the communities of the Enchanted Circle perfect for athletes looking to improve their endurance. The concept of high altitude training is refreshingly simple—the athlete trains in a lower oxygen environment, and the body compensates by increasing the amount of oxygen in the blood. More accurately the kidneys produce more of a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), which increases the hemoglobin content of the blood. Oxygen is transported through the blood attached to hemoglobin, so additional EPO increases oxygen in the blood.
After training at altitude the athlete will develop oxygen-saturated blood. It is not yet known whether this is similar to Charlie Sheen’s famous highly-enriched “tiger blood.” At any rate, more oxygen in the blood provides more fuel for the muscles, which theoretically improves endurance. Experts generally recommend 10-20 days of high altitude training to achieve optimal results. After this the athlete will be acclimatized for competing at high altitude, or can drop in elevation and compete for several weeks with oxygen enriched blood. Many elite athletes including seven-time Tour De France cyclist Lance Armstrong and multi-Olympic medal winning swimmer Michael Phelps believe in the positive effects of high altitude training and incorporate it into their routines.
High altitude training is considered anything over 5000 feet, with 8000 feet and above considered optimal. The towns and villages of the Enchanted Circle range from 6,950 feet in Taos to 8,750 feet in Red River, ideal for endurance athletes to train. Plentiful sunshine, moderate temperatures, and uncrowded smog-free trails add to the experience.
Theories about training at altitude did not begin until after the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City (elevation 7,349 feet). The games produced many sub-standard times for the endurance events, presumably due to the lack of oxygen at elevation. The effects of endurance training at high altitudes have been studied ever since. Nearly 30 years later, elite athletes looked to the Enchanted Circle in preparation for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia.
The Australian Olympic cycling team trained in Angel Fire area for three weeks before the Summer Games. It was the first year mountain biking was an Olympic event and a young Cadel Evans was the Aussie hopeful. Later he switched to road biking and is now regarded as one of the sport’s best. The team trainers would draw blood before and after training sessions, measuring the oxygen levels in the blood in order to maximize performance.
The U.S. men’s and women’s rowing teams trained for the same Olympic Games on Eagle Nest Lake. Their high altitude training regimen consisted of several weeks of sculling across the lake, as well as biking and running.
Decorated professional boxer Danny Romero chose Angel Fire’s 8,420 ft elevation to train before his title fight with Johnny Tapia in 1997. He sparred, ran and lifted weights as part of his training routine for three months. Romero though was defeated by Tapia in the 12th round after wowing the Las Vegas crowds with an all-Albuquerque battle.
Currently mountaineer Nicky Messner chooses to live in Taos not only for its abundant outdoor activities, but for the training opportunities as well. Before summiting Mt. Everest in 2008, she prepared for the adventure by hiking and skiing Taos Ski Valley’s Kachina Peak throughout January and February. In addition to the lack of oxygen—the cutting winds, low temperatures and limited visibility taught her how to deal with similarly foul conditions at the top of the world.
She is certain of the positive effects of training at altitude. “I’m going from thin air into thinner air, and I believe I have a huge advantage over sea level climbers. My body is used to less oxygen every day, and because I’m able to use Wheeler Peak as a training tool, my body knows how to adjust to the occasions where I give it even less oxygen.”
Although she admits she doesn’t really like to run, she incorporates it in her training routine to improve her cardiovascular endurance. She also includes fitness classes, weight training and hiking. Currently she is training for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro this July with an all-woman group.
The grand opening of the Taos Eco Park this April marked the future of the area’s potential of high altitude training opportunities. The field received a coveted 2-star rating by professional soccer’s governing body FIFA. The rating is given only to the highest quality synthetic turf pitches. It is only one of four fields in the US to achieve the rating and the only one at altitude. Angel Fire is currently building a similar field.
The project was partnership between the Town of Taos and the Taos Municipal School District and will be used as a high altitude training field for professional and elite teams wanting to improve their endurance in such sports as soccer, football, lacrosse and rugby. It also offers area youth the chance to practice and compete on a truly world-class field. Several countries have already shown interest in training at the Taos Eco Park. Incidentally, training in Taos has the added advantage of helping teams from Europe, Asia and Africa acclimatize to high altitude.
Local outdoor and bicycle shops have maps of many of the area trails. Popular routes include hiking to Wheeler Peak, either from Taos Ski Valley or just outside of Red River. Mountain bikers continually praise the South Boundary Trail, which traditionally runs about 22 miles from Forest Road 76 south of Angel Fire to Taos. Road bikers tout the 85-mile Enchanted Circle loop, flocking to Red River during August for the Enchanted Circle Century Tour. For those wanting to compare their high altitude fitness level with others, the Frazier Mountain Madness mountain biking competition in July, and the Up & Over Trail Run in August will do the trick. Both start in the Taos Ski Valley above 9000 feet.
Training at altitude requires cautionary advice beyond the scope of the article. Be smart, start off slow, hydrate frequently and talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
Michael Johnstone has blown several lung bearings hiking, biking and running around the Enchanted Circle.