What are the benefits of High Altitude Training.In recent years there has been significant publicity regarding high altitude training for elite athletes and sporting teams, These athletes and clubs usually spend time overseas high Altitude training in the lead up to Competitions, events and to forthcoming seasons but anyone can benefit spending a week at altitude as described in this article about High Altitude Training Tours in America, Altitude Training for everyone.
“Altitude training is a component of virtually all elite running programs and 95 percent of all medalists at the world championships and the Olympic Games since 1968 have either lived or trained at altitude. Indeed, the world’s fastest distance runners will do everything they can to gain a fraction of improvement to become the best”.
The interest in the success of athletes who live and train at high altitude has been around since the 1960s. A watershed event was the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games held at around 10,000 feet altitude (3050m) in which African athletes from high altitude nations performed well, whereas non-African athletes were significantly disadvantaged by the “thin air” associated with the low oxygen content at such altitudes.
Altitude training is a component of virtually all elite running programs, 95 percent of all medalists at the world championships and the Olympic Games since 1968 have either lived or trained at altitude. Indeed, the world’s fastest distance runners will do everything they can to gain a fraction of improvement to become the best.
Since that time there has been a great interest in the benefits of high altitude training for athletes who are not normally residing in these areas. During the 1970s it was quite fashionable for track athletes to spend time training at high altitude in an attempt to gain the aerobic benefits naturally associated with the blood cell changes, which are induced by exposure to low oxygen environments.
As the knowledge of the benefits of high altitude training became better understood by sports scientists, the practice of “blood doping” came into sport during the 1980s in an attempt to avoid the need to spend time at high altitudes. Blood doping is a strategy whereby athletes withdraw blood from their own system at altitude, then store it for up to six weeks in a controlled laboratory setting. They then reinfuse the blood into their veins 1 to 2 days prior to competition to increase the “blood boosting” effects. A number of high profile athletes and high profile sports followed this practice throughout the 1980s and the success of the 1984 USA Olympic cycling team was put down in large part to this practice. This strategy was clearly intended to boost performance and was considered blatant cheating. It is now banned in all sports.
What is beyond doubt is that there is a range of benefits obtained from training at high altitude. EPO is naturally released from the kidney in response to exposure to hypoxic (low oxygen) environments and this results in increased production of red blood cells. The increase in the red cells produces an increased concentration of oxygen carrying cells within the blood stream and ultimately a rise in the individual’s haematocrit (% of blood concentration made up from red cells). This results in improved strength, intensity, endurance and stamina, especially whilst competing.
WHAT CONSTITUTES HIGH ALTITUDE?
There are a range of altitude levels at which different effects are experienced and different training benefits gained. The common classification of altitude zones is as follows:
0 to 500 metres – sea level or “near sea level”
500m to 1750m – low altitude
1750m to 2500m – moderate altitude
2500m to 5000m – high altitude
Greater than 5000m – extreme high altitude
It has been demonstrated that in the non-athletic population individuals experience a reduction in their aerobic capacity (V02 max) of approximately 1% deficit for each 100m they ascend beyond 1500m of altitude. However in an elite athlete who is finely tuned the reduction in V02 max has been measured at around 7 to 8% deficit for each 1000m they ascend above sea level.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN EFFECTS OF ALTITUDE TRAINING?
The primary reason athletes train at altitude is to try to gain the haematological benefits. These have been outlined above and include an increase in the haematocrit and red cell mass and therefore the oxygen carrying capacity in the blood. This leads to increased strength, intensity, stamina and endurance, particularly relevant to all athletes in competition and events.
However, it is not just the haematological benefits which are obtained. There are also benefits of increased workout economy and increased muscle buffering of exercise waste products. In particular lactic acid buffering is improved which offsets the muscle fatigue so often associated with a limitation of sports performance. These additional benefits also occur at the micro cellular level associated with the various enzymes attached to energy utilisation and elimination of the metabolic by-products of muscle exertion.
WHAT IS THE IDEAL ALTITUDE FOR TRAINING?
It is important to realise that most of the benefits associated with altitude training do not really start to appear unless training is done at an altitude beyond 2000m. For haematological changes the optimal altitude is around 2500m. Studies looking at the effects on running economy and muscle buffering have shown that there may even be better results with altitude exposures of around 3000m.
Some studies have also shown that it takes from 5 days minimum for an athlete to acclimatise to the effects of training at altitude above 2000m,and that the optimal benefits of altitude training are obtained after approximately 1 to 2 weeks of exposure to the hypoxic environment. There appears to be little in the way of further gains from extending the exposure period beyond 4 weeks, although there may be certain individuals who benefit from longer exposure times.
At first it is obviously difficult to train with high intensity at altitude beyond 2500m when acclimatisation has not fully set in. Fatigue, breathlessness, headache and overall malaise are just a few of the potential symptoms of unsuitable altitude exposure. There has been more recently a strategy employed where athletes “live high, train low”. With this method the athlete spends the majority of their day at the appropriate high altitude level, but descends to perform training at a lower altitude closer to sea level for the high intensity sessions. This tricks the body into believing it is living at high altitude, but allows the athlete to perform better quality training during the several hours of high intensity workload.
HOW LONG DOES THE ALTITUDE EFFECT LAST?
Again there is individual variation in responses to the duration of the effect after high altitude training exposure, but most scientists agree that the maximum effect is only obtained for a 2 to 3 week period after training exposure. Athletes who return to compete at sea level can compete immediately after they return, but the haematological and other training benefits are probably only maximally obtained for the following 3 weeks.
Some athletes and sporting clubs elect to continue some hypoxic training back at their sea level base by utilising hypoxic chambers, hypoxic houses or even home based hypoxic tents. The athlete needs to spend wasted time for several hours a day (including sleeping) in a low oxygen environment whilst continuing to train in their normal sea level environment. By adopting this strategy athletes think the could continue the haematological and muscle buffering benefits for a longer period of time back in their normal home environment. However, scientists agree that this is not as effective as actually spending further time at “natural” high altitude. Furthermore, the amount of time that needs to be spent within the “artificial “hypoxic environment can be as much as 20 hours per day without training in order to achieve the desired result, so why not just go back to the natural altitude training?
Altitude training has been utilised by athletes and sports people for over 40 years. More recent research suggests that apart from the blood parameters which are enhanced (oxygen carrying capacity), there are also improvements in workout economy and muscle buffering ability to deal with waste products.
It appears that the benefits are optimised at an altitude of 2500m or above and athletes need to spend a minimum of 5 to 14 days at altitude to gain optimal results. Once the benefits are achieved, performance at sea level is improved for a period of 3 to 4 weeks, but this varies between individuals.