While the eastern states swelter through record-high temperatures, athletes vying for Commonwealth Games selection have escaped to the mountains to train at altitude.
An annual pilgrimage to Victoria’s alpine region each summer sees hundreds of elite athletes from across Australia turn Falls Creek ski village into a distance-running mecca.
Eloise Wellings will spend most of January clocking her miles on the Falls Creek trails.
She has carefully mapped her altitude training schedule to be at her best in time for the national championships in February and Commonwealth Games in April.
The two-time Olympian is well placed to be selected for the 10,000 metres at the Games having already run the A-standard time for the event.
She’ll also be putting herself forward for selection in the 5,000 metres by competing at the national titles.
The benefits of altitude training
Falls Creek is at 1,600 metres, slightly lower than some of the popular European distance training hotspots, but just high enough according to Wellings.
“On our long run this week we got to about 1,780 metres towards Mount McKay which is the highest drivable point in Australia,” she said.
“St Moritz [in Switzerland], for example, is 1,800 metres, as is Mount Laguna in California where we’ve done other camps.
“I love the height of Falls Creek and I can definitely notice the altitude, especially running uphill.”
Wellings said she wouldn’t change her normal weekly mileage of around 140 kilometres while at altitude, but the thin air would give her training the extra intensity.
“We do the same type of training as we would do at home, but because we’re in the group environment there’s all of those benefits too,” she said.
“There’s an energy and a buzz around the fact that you’re on a camp with your training partners.
“There’s less distraction and you can really focus on training for a certain period of time.”
How does it work?
Altitude training works on the principle that at altitudes where there is less available oxygen, athletes make physiological adaptations to be able to train in that environment.
Senior physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) Dr Philo Saunders said the training gave athletes a boost leading into competition.
“The typical physiological response is that there is a greater production of red blood cells in response to the shortage of available oxygen,” he said.
“A stint of around two weeks or more training at altitude typically increases the athletes’ haemoglobin mass.
“This can result in strong performance improvements.”
Wellings said that even within her training group there were variations in how well people would respond to the training.
“I’m definitely a responder to altitude and I know that because of the way I’ve performed after blocks of training at altitude,” she said.
The benefits of altitude training have been found to take effect either within 48 hours after returning to sea level or after 10 days.
“I’ve tried both and have run really well off altitude training,” Wellings said.
“There are a lot of factors to consider; I’ve been at altitude training camps for anywhere between 10 days and four-and-a-half weeks.
“It’s so important to get enough sleep and really do less the week after coming away from altitude.
“It’s very individual in how you respond.”
Beating the heat
Wellings admitted she was relieved to be getting through her training away from the Sydney heat this week.
“It’s still pretty hot up here, but it’s certainly not as hot as it was in Sydney.
“We got through a two-hour run yesterday in about 29 degrees and found it pretty hot, especially as there’s no shade up here.
“But we were really glad we weren’t at home for the 47 degrees.”
Athletics Australia is expected to announce its Commonwealth Games team after the national titles.