Thursday, August 25, 2011

High altitude training in the French Pyrenees

After a week of hard training combined with eating and drinking too much in Paris, I said goodbye to Alison and took a long train ride down to the French Pyrenees, to a small village in the clouds called Font Romeu. The plan was to meet my club mates Sean, Kevin, Brian and Louis for a week of high altitude training.

The train journey in itself was quite an adventure, involving catching three trains and 9 hours of travel time from Paris. The final two hour train journey was on an alpine railway line that precariously wound its way up through the mountains to Font Romeu. I elected to sit on an ‘outdoor carriage’, which had no roof or windows. It turned out that this train ride was actually a tourist attraction - nobody else on the train had luggage and everybody else had a camera. It was quite a buzz, particularly the vertigo experienced when crossing one of many deep canyons on the awesome viaducts, with nothing more than a handrail between you and the deep valley below.

Font Romeu falls somewhere between being a quaint village and a bustling town/ski station. It is fairly quiet at this time of year (summer), but the concentration of hotels and apartment complexes hint that the place has a different vibe during the winter ski season. During the summer you’ll find mostly athletes and some hikers/families floating around. There isn’t a lot to do in Font Romeu, other than to train, eat croissants, and to visit one of the many outdoor sports stores and pay extortionate prices for mountain running gear. In other words, there are few distractions and it’s the perfect place to go for a training camp.

We met and trained with a number of athletes who were visiting from the UK and Ireland. Including Joe McAlister from Belfast, Gary Thornton from Galway, Steve Vernon and a few other guys and girls from Manchester. Though these lads are international-class athletes, so keeping up with them was difficult enough even during their supposed ‘easy runs’. On the hard runs we would start together and then the group would split during the run.

For anyone interested in training in Font Romeu, here are a few things to know before you go:

  • Fly to Carcassonne or Perpignan (in the South of France) or Barcelona or Girona (in Spain). Font Romeu is less than two hours drive from any of these places.
  • Unfortunately hiring a car is almost essential, since many of the best running locations are a ten or fifteen minute drive from Font Romeu village.
  • Eating out in Font Romeu is not cheap and you might not end up eating what you wanted (if you don’t speak French). So it’s probably better to stay in an apartment rather than a hotel. That way you can make your own meals and dine in at least some of the time.
  • Apartments tend to be fairly compact, though cheap. Our apartment ‘slept four’ but that actually meant that there was a bunk and a double bed. Four was a crowd, but the company was good and at €15 per person per night you can’t complain.
  • There is a decent supermarket in Font Romeu where you can stock up on whatever supplies you need. And at least two even better supermarkets within five minutes drive.

Places to train

Lac de Matemale / Los Angles: Just 15 minutes drive from Font Romeu lies the lake which is surrounded by both flat and hilly forest trails (depending on what you’re looking for on a given day) and provides the perfect environment for laying down some base work. This is also a good place for sessions, because there are more flatter trails than most other places in the area.

Note that Lac de Matemale is located at an altitude of only 1550 metres, so it is a good place to acclimatize over the first few days. But even running steadily at this altitude is noticeably tougher than running at sea level. The shortest trail around the lake is 5 miles, but this can be extended to at least 13 miles by running further out into the forest that lies between the dam and Los Angles. There are several miles of trails at the dam end of the lake alone that can keep you busy without needing to circle the lake.

After your run, I would suggest taking a dip in the lake at the populated beach area on the Los Angles village side. The water is very fresh and is not too cold. You can also hire kayaks, sail boats and wind surfers here (if you have any energy left) and get some lunch from the kiosk.

The national centre for altitude training (track and swimming pool): This facility is located beside the village at 1850 metres altitude. The track is decent and you’ll see plenty of other athletes around. To give you an idea of the affect of the altitude. We ran a set of 6x1 mile intervals on the track and my splits were 20 seconds slower than they had been the previous week in Paris.

Pyrenees 2000
(1700 metres altitude) – this is a forested area located ten minutes drive from Font Romeu on the main road leading to Los Angles. Here it is on google maps. There are marked loops through the forest, which would be hard to follow without a map or a leader who is familiar with the routes. Hopefully your group leader is not sub-14 minute 5km runners, like ours were (either hang on to the leaders or try to find your own way out)

The plateau – potentially the most interesting and impressive area to run in the area. We were lead by the UK lads from the circular car park (which has a 400m long circle line painted around it) up the steep ski slope to a plateau at 2100 metres altitude. Up here there are a network of trails that run through scrub and sections of scattered low forest dense. From here you have an excellent view of the surrounding mountains while you run. That may be why I tripped on a stone and face-planted in the dirt (cutting my knee up pretty bad). You'll find it only about five minutes uphill drive from Font Romeu. Follow the Sola de la Calma Est road up to the car park and run up to the platue from there.

Once again, you can probably just follow your nose around these trails for a few easy miles, but it helps to be lead by someone who knows where they’re going because it can be tricky to find your way from the plateau back to the car (since the car park is below the plateau).

Mountain trails – there are loads of mountain trails around that you might like to explore. We might’ve done if we were there for longer, and if we were training for a hill race rather than a flat road race. They'd be fairly steep. You can buy maps at the local stores.


  • Quite a few of the lads I met there had a track background (plenty of speed) and are now running longer races, with training focused mainly on mileage and building a base. That means running very few actual speed sessions, but instead lots of miles at steady pace (as distinct from easy pace). But I suppose they already have the speed in the legs, so are afforded the luxury of almost entirely working on endurance base.
  • Progression runs (where you start slowly and increase the pace each mile) seemed popular, and are probably worth introducing into a training program.
  • Re-emphasised the importance of marathon pace runs when training for marathon. Second most important piece of the puzzle after the Sunday long run.
  • It took six days to start feeling more comfortable up at this altitude, and then the next day we left. It just meant that for the first six days the easy runs were not particularly easy. Hard runs were slow, as in you’ll feel like you’re running 3:30 min/km pace but you’re actually running 3:50 min/km pace – hard to get your head around.

Running circles around Paris

Everyone knows that Paris has a lot to offer as a tourist destination. But who would have thought that it would be such a good place to train for a half marathon.

Alison I spent a week taking in the sights and sounds of Paris, at which time I was also in full training for the Irish National Half Marathon Championships (to take place on Saturday 3 September in Waterford). Sometimes it can be difficult to fit training in around sightseeing activities when abroad. Particularly in large and busy cities, where the options for suitable running routes can be limited.

But with the help of the Iphone, google maps, and the velib city bikes scheme (so that Alison could come adventuring with me), Alison and I industriously explored the city and uncovered some excellent running routes and facilities that made training easier. We were also assisted, in no small part, by this useful website about running in Paris. I didn’t get a chance to check out all of the suggested running locations that I’d heard about (because I was busy running track sessions), but I was impressed with the routes that I ran.

It turns out that Paris is an excellent place to train (as well as just to visit generally). Here is why:

Promenade Plantée (garden path)

This is a 4.5-kilometer elevated pedestrian walkway on what was formerly a railway line. The path starts near Place de la Bastille (close to Gare de Lyon), winds above the streets of the 11th and 12th arrondissements of Paris, occasionally dips to street level, and ends near the Bois de Vincennes (conveniently, right beside the Paul Valery running track and outdoor pool). Access is also available via several gates along the way. Bizarrely, the Promenade Plantée on its raised platform above the city is lined with all sorts of trees and gardens. It has been accurately described as 'a running oasis of traffic-less-ness and nature that bypasses the hustle-and-bustle of the Parisian streets below'. Well worth checking out.

Bois de Vincennes (Vincennes Park)

In the 11th century, the Bois de Vincennes was a royal hunting playground. Today the public park is the largest and greenest area in Paris. Essentially it is a forest park with a web of trails (and some roads) spanning through it, not unlike ‘the Labyrinth’. Once you disappear into the surprisingly thick and rugged forest, you forget that you are still in Paris. I reckon the Park is probably just over 10km in circumference. So you could probably jog around it in about an hour. But you’re much better off getting lost on the trails within the park and trying to find your way out. The Park is on the eastern side of the city, about 4km from Bastille or Republique. The park is home to several lakes and gardens, a château, a zoo, and even a Buddhist monastery. You can hire boats and paddle around the lakes. It’s a very cool place.

The Seine

The Seine is the river that runs through central Paris. Running along the Seine pathway (which runs continuously for several miles) will take you past some of the city’s most famous monuments and under some of its most famous bridges. You will be distracted along the way by numerous impressive and noteworthy sites including Notre Dame, the Grand Palais, the Eiffel Tower. At this time of the year the path is busy with tourists, and there is also a man-made beach on the edge of the path crowded with sunbathers (strangely). The path is fairly wide, so as long as you get your run in early (before 10am) then you should be able to hold a steady pace without too many tourists getting in the way.

Public access athletics stadiums

Parc de Vincennes alone has five running tracks within its boundaries. We paid a visit to the Paul Valéry centre on the city side of Vincennes, after reading that a couple of running clubs train there on a Monday night. The track is part of a sports centre with tennis courts and 5-a-side soccer pitches etc. There is also an outdoor pool across the street. The track was accessible through an open gate from the southern side of the sports complex, and there is also a hole in the fence on the eastern side. I ran four sessions on the track over the course of the week: 16x400 off 60 seconds, 5x1mile off 2 minutes, 10000m tempo (25 laps), and 10x800 off 2 minutes. This was particularly handy since my Garmin was out of action.

Parc de Luxembourg

This is a relatively small park (about a mile around) in the South side of Paris. Yet I’m mentioning it as a jogging option because it’s so beautiful that you’ll be happy to run several laps around it. This is a ‘must see’.

Paris to Versailles

The Paris to Versailles race is a big event on the local running calendar. The 16km race starts near the Eiffel tower and finishes by the Palace of Versailles. I decided to reccie the route in case I ever decide to run this race. It was pretty boring, and quite hilly. On the upside, you can save yourself €3 by avoiding the train fare and the spectacular panorama of the 'Musical Gardens' behind the palace is worth the hike. Not to mention the ice cream. You'll need a map, preferably a GPS map on a smart phone, to negotiate your way there through the suburbs in the south-west of Paris.