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.


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