The everyday athlete’s guide to training at altitude

By Sabrina Gonzalez | Photo by Paul Gilmore/Unsplash

Aiming for a competitive edge? Planning to beat your PR? Whether you’re looking to outdo yourself or other athletes, altitude training can help you.

What is it?

Altitude training is a form of endurance training where athletes practice their sport at a higher altitude than sea level. For a few weeks, athletes are relocated to training grounds of at least 5,000 feet above sea level. They are then subjected to a lower partial pressure of oxygen. There are several kinds of high altitude training such as the live-high, train-low or the live-high, train-high regimens, with varying degrees of improvements.

How it Works

So what is it about training in high altitudes that enhances an athlete’s performance? It’s the atmosphere–at high altitudes, air is less dense, which means there are less gas molecules for every liter of air. Although the percentage of atmospheric oxygen at high altitudes is similar to sea level (21 percent), partial pressure is decreased. Thus, the body is exposed to a relatively lower amount of oxygen or what’s called hypoxia. The theory is that by subjecting the athlete to hypoxic conditions seen at high altitudes, the body will adapt to these changes by improving oxygen delivery, transport, and utilization. When the athlete returns to sea level, these physiologic changes remain, giving them a distinct advantage.

Physiologic Changes

There are a number of ways the body acclimatizes to these atmospheric changes. Initially, your heart rate and respiratory rate increase, both during exercise and at rest. Within a few days, the production of a natural substance known as erythropoietin will increase due to the lack of oxygen. This, in turn, induces red blood cell (RBC) production, resulting in an increase in RBC volume and improving oxygen transport to cells.

Aside from better oxygen delivery, various physiologic changes occur at the cellular level. There is an increase in synthesis of hypoxia inducible factor 1 or HIF-1, which improves metabolism and energy transport. Moreover, the buffering capacity of the body is improved, resulting in better regulation of acid-base balance necessary for endurance events.

High altitude conditions also produce respiratory adaptations. Higher minute ventilation results in higher VO2 max, a measure of cardiorespiratory performance and endurance. Thus, there is more efficient use of oxygen during prolonged exercise. Ongoing studies on altitude training are focusing on the genetic alterations that occur with hypoxia.

Improving Outcomes

All these physiologic changes occurring during altitude training leads to enhancements in athletic performance. After returning to sea level, these changes have been known to persist up to approximately two weeks. Many athletes develop stronger muscles and improved movement economics. Energy production and endurance are likewise improved.

An important thing to remember is that the response to altitude training varies. Aside from this, exposure to high altitude for extended periods can have negative effects, which can ultimately be disadvantageous to competition, and even dangerous. Experts advise testing altitude tolerance prior to engaging in altitude training. When individualized and undertaken properly, altitude training can help you achieve your full athletic potential.