Altitude training: If you’ve heard runners rave about the miraculous benefits of training at high altitudes, you may have been left wondering what all the fuss is about. You’re not alone. Despite near-unanimous agreement on its general benefits, altitude training remains a subject of some controversy in the field of sports science.
Why Does Altitude Help Us Train?
In a nutshell: thin air.
If you’re not familiar with high altitude training, that answer may surprise you. Thin air is the last thing most people want when they’re pushing through the end of a hard workout, but it carries a suite of physiological benefits.
The proposed benefits range from the obvious increase in the physical difficulty of performing athletic tasks in low oxygen to the possible placebo effect of believing that your training will make you more effective.
And if you’re looking for the number one reason athletes train at altitude, you need to know about hemoglobin.
Hemoglobin is the protein in blood which carries oxygen all throughout your body. At high altitudes, your body is unable to efficiently saturate each hemoglobin cell. It begins to counteract the lack of available oxygen by creating more of these cells, increasing the efficiency with which oxygen can be carried from the lungs through the body.
While there is no consensus on what altitude is required to stimulate this production, nor what duration of exposure, studies have shown that 2-3 of training weeks at 1800m results in a significant increase (Laura A. Garvican-Lewis, Iona Halliday, Chris R. Abbiss, Philo U. Saunders, Christopher J. Gore. (2015) Altitude Exposure at 1800 m Increases Haemoglobin Mass in Distance Runners. Between 1400m and 1800m, lesser benefits are suspected but largely unproven.
When athletes return to sea-level, the additional hemoglobin remains, and the body is more able to effectively deliver oxygen than it could be otherwise. This is considered to be the primary reason why training at elevation is effective.
Watch Your Iron
You need iron to produce hemoglobin, so it is commonly recommended that you take an iron supplement while training at altitude. At least one study has shown that athletes who are typically iron deficient see a greater increase in hemoglobin mass, so long as they receive proper supplements (Laura A. Garvican-Lewis, Andrew D. Govus, Peter Peeling, Chris R. Abbiss, Christopher J. Gore. (2016) Iron Supplementation and Altitude: Decision Making Using a Regression Tree.
The Devil’s Bargain
It is widely accepted that elevation training does cause an increase in hemoglobin production, and that additional hemoglobin allows athletes to perform at increased levels, but there remains some debate whether elevation training is a completely effective method.
Many athletes and researches see an unspoken trade in elevation training. They believe that the environmental benefits conferred at high altitudes are negated by the increased difficulty of training there in the first place. While little quantifiable evidence has been found to justify this claim, it has led one research team to suggest a novel approach.
In 2015 a group of Journal of Sports Science and Medicine researchers, led by Amelia Carr, published a study which suggests that three weeks of training at lower altitudes (~1400m) while sleeping in tents designed to simulate the oxygen levels at 3000m could stimulate hemoglobin production as effectively as living and training at 1600m.
By using this “LHTL” method, athletes can take full advantages of the benefits of high altitude training, while maintaining a relative intensity that wouldn’t be possible a little higher up (Amelia J. Carr, Philo U. Saunders, Brent S. Vallance, Laura A. Garvican-Lewis, Christopher J. Gore. (2015) Increased Hypoxic Dose After Training at Low Altitude with 9h Per Night at 3000m Normobaric Hypoxia.
Timing Matters Too
Once you’ve decided to incorporate altitude into your training routine, you’ll need to figure out the timing. It is generally recommended to use the first 1-2 weeks at altitude for a low-intensity training acclimatization period. However, more seasoned athletes (particularly those with experience training at altitude) may be able to resume high activity training in the first 2-4 days with better results.
On return to sea-level, hemoglobin mass has been observed to remain stable as many as 14 days, and, in some cases, has been suggested to last as many as 4 weeks. Overall, it seems that the first 4-8 days after completion of an altitude training camp is the optimal time to compete (Avish P. Sharma, Philo U. Saunders, Laura A. Garvican – Lewis, Julien D. Périard, Brad Clark, Christopher J. Gore, Benjamin P. Raysmith, Jamie Stanley, Eileen Y. Robertson, Kevin G. Thompson. (2018) Training Quantification and Periodization during Live High Train High at 2100 M in Elite Runners: An Observational Cohort Case Study.
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