High altitude training is a practice that has been used mostly by endurance athletes for decades, but it’s only recently that its use is being exploited by athletes to improve speed and power qualities and its relation to sprinting activity.
What does altitude training involve?
It’s a training strategy used by sportspersons and athletes to improve their sporting performance. It’s performed at high altitudes where it’s more difficult to breathe.
Generally, it’s understood as training taking place at 2400mts above sea level.
Normally, the type of athlete that’s going to use or is thinking of using this training is focused on endurance events.
How does altitude training work?
The idea is simple: force the body to adapt to the lack of oxygen. In this way, when we compete at low altitude (near sea level) our performance is higher.
Let’s look at what this is based on:
What is Hypoxia?
As we reach higher altitudes, and move away from sea level, the oxygen content of the atmosphere decreases.
In principle, this deficit can lead athletes getting more out of their training sessions. However, a lower oxygen concentration can in turn lead to reduced performance.
Training at high altitude leads to what is known as hypoxia.
Hypoxia is a condition of noticeable absence of oxygen, with the acquisition of oxygen by cells being diminished.
Increased red blood cell production
The stimulation of red blood cell (RBC) production is mostly produced in the kidneys in the presence of increased amounts of the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), stimulated by training conditions.
In general, it takes up to almost 10 days for the organism to train for this synthesis.
The higher the altitude, the less oxygen in each breath of air, so the heart and lungs will have to work harder.
The red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles.
How is it done?
There are 3 strategies for getting benefit from altitude training:
- LH + TL: Live High, Train Low. Athletes take advantage of the metabolic improvements caused by the oxygen deficit in a high altitude situation, and then train at sea level, where they can “push themselves” to the max, supplying the maximum O2 available.
- LL + TH: Live High, Train Low. This method makes use of technology. Among these developments are hypoxic masks and chambers that generate the same O2 concentration conditions as if we were at a high altitude.
- LH + TH: Live High, Train High and Low. This is a mixture of the above concepts. We can live at high altitude, and then combine hypoxic sessions and those at sea level. We get benefits from both fields.
IHE = Intermittent Hypoxia Exposure; IHT = Intermittent Hypoxia Training; LH + TH = Live High, Train High; LH + TL = Live High, Train Low; LL + TH = Live Low, Train High.
Benefits of training at altitude
Among the potential effects of altitude training are the following:
- Muscle oxygenation: Increased red blood cell count due to increased production of EPO (erythropoietin).
- Increased lactate tolerance.
- Increased aerobic capacity: higher VO2MAX.
- Reduction of recovery times from workouts.
- Natural increase in human growth hormone (HGC).
This is due to the ability of the muscles to re-oxygenate and are involved in the repletion of PCr (creatine phosphate), recovering faster from high intensity efforts. The phosphocreatine substrate shows the greatest improvement.
What do I need to know before starting altitude training?
Acclimatising to the new circumstances
Certain physiological changes can occur in the body of the athlete who has just settled at a high altitude to begin the altitude training, which will significantly limit their immediate performance.
These include: headache, fatigue, nausea, dyspnoea, increased oxidative stress, loss of plasma volume, dehydration, possible jet lag due to the journey, sunburn due to increased exposure to ultraviolet light, decreased cardiac output…
Type of training
At the beginning of the period of altitude training, we should reduce the effort involved, otherwise we’ll quickly reach muscle fatigue.
Don’t train too strenuously, as the oxygen debt imposed is considerable, and performance will be severely limited.
In this case, you should opt for quality training, reducing its volume and intensity.
This is due to the high calorie expenditure and the higher the altitude the more the appetite tends to be suppressed.
At higher altitudes our metabolism remains accelerated, so our resting consumption already increases per se.
Where should it be carried out
Unless you live for a long period of time at high altitude, the gains from this type of training don’t last for very long.
That’s why most athletes choose to spend a period of their season in a venue with the conditions they’re looking for and reap the benefits of training at altitude.
How to stimulate altitude training
At sea level, our performance is at its maximum, thanks to the abundant supply of oxygen in the atmosphere, as opposed to when climbing to a higher altitude. Many authors conclude that the ideal would be:
Live High + Train Low
This model advocates that athletes can simultaneously experience the benefits of training at altitude but train at sea level, generating physiological adaptations.
Simulating hypoxia training.
LH + TL on Natural Altitude Level
This model was evaluated in a study: a number of athletes lived at 2500m but trained at 1250m. It was shown that after 28 days post-experimentation, this group saw their VO2MAX improve compared to the control group.
Successive research has been carried out (including preparations for the Olympics), and the athletes subjected to the protocol experienced physiological improvements in the production of erythrocytes.
- Nitrogen House Room: this system can simulate an altitude of up to 3000mts.
- Hypoxic Chamber or Tent: this is a sealed enclosure where oxygen-depleted air is administered.
- Hypobaric Chamber: this can simulate altitudes of up to 5500mts, so that sportspersons and / or athletes can sleep.
- Masks: used during the sleep phase to provide O2 deficit.
Indoor cycling in hypoxia.
- You can also go to a centre where classes are given, usually indoor cycling, which simulate the conditions of altitude.
- These are group classes, held in a large hypoxic chambers.
- The results that can be obtained are similar to those that would be obtained by training at high altitude.
- Hun-young Park, Hyejung Hwang, Jonghoon Park, Seongno Lee, and Kiwon Lim. (2016). The effects of altitude/hypoxic training on oxygen delivery capacity of the blood and aerobic exercise capacity in elite athletes – a meta-analysis.
- Jacob A. Sinex, Robert F. Chapman. (2015). Hypoxic training methods for improving endurance exercise performance.
- Faiss, R., Léger, B., Vesin, J. M., Fournier, P. E., Eggel, Y., Dériaz, O., & Millet, G. P. (2013). Significant molecular and systemic adaptations after repeated sprint training in hypoxia. PLoS One, 8(2), e56522.
- Saugy, J. J., Schmitt, L., Cejuela, R., Faiss, R., Hauser, A., Wehrlin, J. P., … & Millet, G. P. (2014). Comparison of “Live High-Train Low” in Normobaric versus Hypobaric Hypoxia. PloS one, 9(12), e114418.
- Athlete Performance Laboratory, United States Olympic Committee, Colorado Springs, CO, USA. Application of altitude/hypoxic training by elite athletes.
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- VO2MAX is a very important piece of data for understanding our performance. If you want to find out how to calculate it, visit this link
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