For Nick Symmonds and the other members of the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts Track Club, logging thousands of miles during a long training block in the 6,000-plus-foot altitude of Albuquerque, N.M., has many benefits. Coach Danny Mackey has taken his team to other high-altitude training sites, but he’s settled back in Albuquerque with hopes of making his team stronger, lighter and faster.
“We get a response,” says Mackey of high altitude training. “The weather is more mild here and—my secret—you can do a lot more runs at lower elevations (5,000 feet) within a 10- to 15-minute drive.”
After USA Track and Field's Dr. Robert Chapman started doing more research at higher altitudes, some teams shifted their training to Flagstaff, Ariz., at 7,000 feet. Mackey has mixed it up over the years, staying under 5,000 feet in Albuquerque and then, last year, training in Flagstaff. But this year he has two Albuquerque camps planned for his all in preparation for the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., in July (at an altitude of roughly 400 feet).
Research shows that athletes need to train at altitude for more than 21 days to ensure blood and muscle benefits, but training there too long can be a detriment to middle-distance runners. So with a focus on the trials in July, Mackey spaced out his altitude camps in order to get the maximum benefit for the runners. By breaking up the work he also varies his athletes’ runs, both when in New Mexico and when in Washington.
“When we get to June I want them ready to build fire,” he says. “It is hard to do that when you start seven months out.”
Mackey has chosen Albuquerque for another reason: relationships. He has built solid relationships with the University of New Mexico track program, the local Dukes Track Club and Albuquerque Academy, a high school team with a campus that includes a 5K course, a track, medicine balls and more. “This is kind of our second home,” Mackey says about the city.
Bringing everyone together has its benefits too, with six or seven athletes staying in three Brooks-rented houses in a “Real World Brooks Beasts style.” There’s camaraderie and maybe even a placebo effect from working hard alongside other athletes, Mackey says. “You are going to be bored, but with teammates building relationships. In this month there is this “kick ass in the mountains and train hard” mindset. That is something right there. You are working really hard, but having a lot of fun.”
Symmonds, the six-time U.S. 800 meter champion, says he’d rather be in Seattle, but sees the benefit of eliminating the distractions and putting a focus on training and technique.
“It is more that there is just not a lot going on,” he says. “When in Seattle I am meeting with friends, working on my businesses, driving around doing errands. When I’m (in Albuquerque) there is nothing but training. I might be inclined to do a shortcut in Seattle, but here there is nothing but time. I enjoy working out more to fill the time.”
While Mackey says the workouts are all the same, whether at altitude or Seattle, he does offer tweaks. For Symmonds, a 20- to 25-minute tempo run in Seattle has him covering four or five miles. In Albuquerque he will do two sets of 2.5 miles with a three-minute rest to accomplish the same goal.
“He is still getting his five miles, but I put a break in there,” Mackey says about accounting for altitude. For Katie Mackey, a 3,000-meter runner, Danny has her going two miles with a two-minute rest, two more miles before another two-minute rest and then finishing with a final mile. “You have got to monitor the effort,” Danny says about what to put a focus on. “You are still doing (the distance), but it just looks different.”
If Mackey has his athletes training distance, they notice the altitude taking its toll just a quarter-mile in. So, for example, instead of six sets of 300s in Seattle, Mackey works in more breaks with eight sets of 200s. “It is a little bit shorter,” he says, “increasing the rest over intervals.”
But the mind can play a trick on the athletes too. If Danny wants his athletes running tempo runs at a seven out of 10 exertion level, the altitude may have them push higher to match times they easily hit in Seattle. Too much exertion breeds overwork. “Nick did a tempo run and did it really well, but was still 12 seconds off,” Danny says. “It is hard to see the correlation because they are so data driven, so you have got to be creative and make sure they know they are getting more and more fit.
“The weights are the same, the drills are the same; we are spacing it out differently.”
Symmonds says he has put a focus on building strength to make sure he can get through those first three rounds that he sees as the Olympic trials. If he qualifies for Rio, he buys himself another six weeks of training.
With Mackey planning his running regimen, Symmonds has always turned to Jim Radcliffe from the University of Oregon to set his strength program.
“Most of what we are doing is lightweight explosive stuff,” Symmonds says. “A lot of Olympic lifting, hanging cleans and jerks and snatches, pull ups and core.” He spends 45 minutes to an hour twice each week covering all muscle groups, a process that puts a premium on “running-centric motions” to help with his running economy and his starts, a recent area of improvement for the World silver medalist and two-time Olympian.
With July quickly approaching, Brooks athletes will use the altitude of Albuquerque to prepare in both mind and body.
Tim Newcomb covers sports aesthetics—stadiums to sneakers—and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.