Many athletes—especially those on the elite and Olympic levels—use altitude training to improve their physical performance and get some edge of the competition.
And it’s not just anecdotal evidence. In fact, research supports some of the positive performance effects of altitude training on the human body.
In fact, altitude training has been an integral part of virtually all elite running programs.
Whether you are a professional runner looking for the next athletic edge or just are in the mountains for holidays, here is how to make the most out of your time at altitude.
Altitude Training Explained
For a long time, many performance experts have advised that training at altitude can improve performance.
But they were merely just suggestions without any real science to back up the claims, but things changed as evidence started to emerge during the late 60’s.
The Olympic Games of 1968 were held in Mexico City, one of the world’s most elevated capitals, sitting at the height of 7350 feet above sea level.
During the event, the impact of attitude on performance was undeniable.
This led to the conclusion that high altitude training can help the athlete take their game to the next level, even if it’s just for a short time.
So what’s the science behind altitude training, and how it impacts your running performance?
Let’s find out the answers.
What is Altitude Training?
Altitude training involves exercising at higher elevations (or in a simulated high altitude setting) for several weeks.
When you get to certain heights above sea levels—starting from 3,000 feet— the air we breathe contains less oxygen, which forces our body to go through a few physiological changes. These changes become more impactful the higher the altitude.
The Impact Of Altitude
The reason altitude training improves performance boils down to the reduced oxygen levels on the runner’s body.
As the altitude increases, less oxygen is available. When you train in high-altitude surfaces, you draw in less oxygen per breath than you’d at lower altitudes.
To compensate for the decrease in oxygen, the kidneys respond by increasing the release of erythropoietin, or EPO for short, to the bone marrow, forcing the body to ramp up the production of red blood cells.
Since there’s less oxygen in the air at altitude, this element diffuses into the red blood cells more slowly.
That’s why when you exercise at altitude, you may feel like you’re exerting more effort to perform as well as or closer to your sea-level performance.
In fact, you might be expending 25 to 30 percent more energy for the same intensity at 3000 meters than at sea level, research shows.
The Body Response
When you have more red blood cells in your blood, more oxygen is available to be supplied to the working muscles. This leads to an improved VO2 max and athletic performance.
Research suggests that the effect of high-altitude acclimatization fades away within 15 to 20 days of making it to sea level. The rule, the longer you spend training at a high altitude, the longer the benefits will last.
This means that a few races can be run in that time with a boosted performance level.
Getting Started With Altitude Training As A Runner
Beginners, be careful. Make the mistake of doing too much too soon, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself. This will only mess with the adaptation process and might lead to injury and/overtraining.
Instead, adopt a beginner’s mind.
Exercise at altitude three to four days per week, sessions lasting no more than 30 to 45 minutes.
Exercise at no more than 50 to 60 percent of your maximum power at sea level.
Once you feel that your body is starting to adapt, increase your training intensity by working your way up to full power over the course of an eight to ten days period.
Keep an eye for signs of acute mountain sickness, such as:
- rapid heart rate,
- shortness of breath,
- chronic fatigue,
- loss of appetite, and
The Simulated Option
In case you don’t have the time (or the resources) to spend a week or two at altitude, keep in mind that you always have an alternative.
Sure, it’s not as effective as braving the higher altitude, but it’s something worth trying.
Altitude training can be simulated at sea level through the use of training tools such as an altitude simulation room, altitude simulation tent, or the widely used mask-based hypoxicator system.
The science is still in the woods about this, but I don’t any harm in trying it out.
There you have it. If you were ever curious about trying altitude training for improving your running performance, then today’s article should set you on the right path. The rest is just details.
Please feel free to leave your comments and questions in the section below.
In the meantime, thank you for dropping by.