How does altitude training work?


Altitude training has become very popular with endurance athletes and it is almost a necessity to be at the top of your running game. Unfortunately to get substantial benefits from altitude training you do need to spend a considerable amount of time living and training at high altitude, some sources say 2 weeks and others up to 6 weeks. Of course a little is always better than nothing but to reap the real benefits athletes are spending more and more time up in the mountains.

So why do so many go to the effort of relocating to train?

Training at high altitudes has been scientifically proven to work and there are also many living examples of its benefit. Take the Kenyans and Ethiopians for instance who grow up living and training at high altitudes and then go on to dominate the sport of distance running.

What is so special about training at altitude?

The air has much lower pressure up high, decreasing your ability to absorb oxygen. Typically athletes travel to higher than 2400m, however even at lower altitudes such as 1000m you can still feel the difference when training.

On first travelling to a high altitude you may feel short of breath or dizzy. But over time, your body begins to adapt, and you gain an almost superhuman ability to train in low oxygen environments. When moving back to lower altitudes, where oxygen levels are normal, your recent adaptation will provide a noticeable athletic edge. So what is the the reasoning behind all of this? It all comes down to homeostasis, the ability of a living being to regulate internal conditions via a feedback mechanism. Homeostasis is the bread and butter of our physiological stability. It regulates blood glucose levels, acidity, temperature and so much more.

Here are the three things you need for homeostasis:

Something to measure… for example your body temperature.
A way of measuring it… Nerve endings in your skin, spinal cord, and other locations are constantly relaying information to your brain about your internal body temperature and environment.
A way of regulating it… A small part of your brain called the hypothalamus responds to the temperature measurements by inducing regulating mechanisms.

If it’s too hot the hypothalamus will trigger sweating (or panting in your canine companion). If it’s too cold we shiver and our hair stands on end. These mechanisms serve to bring our body temperature back to normal.

Now lets apply this to altitude training. Here the thing being measured is the oxygen level in your blood stream, or particularly your red blood cells, the carriers of oxygen. When this drops, a protein in your kidney call Erythropoietin (EPO) is triggered to inhibit the apoptosis (fancy for automatic destruction) of red blood cells.

Normally your body is constantly creating and destroying red blood cells at the same time, but with the reduced rate of apoptosis, the result is an increased number of red blood cells overall. At this point your blood stream is able to absorb more oxygen, counteracting the effect of the lower air pressure at high altitude.

Does training at high altitude put your body under pressure?

The simple answer is yes. For this reason the “live high, train low” principle has become popular amongst athletes whereby they live at high altitudes and train at lower altitudes so as to not put too much pressure on the body.

Low oxygen level facilities are also being created, where athletes live at the facility but train outside at sea level. If you combine high altitude living with with high altitude training you will of course get an increased training effect because it is during exercise that your body needs to use more oxygen.

The key is that the training shouldn’t be too intense because it needs to go on for some time before the effect kicks in. Athletes should also take care with altitude training so as to not tire themselves out too fast. If proper care is taken athletes will be able to continue the training program for long enough to see positive performance results.

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Nathan Flear

Elite Endurance Coach and International Athlete


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